A Tale of Silver John


Michael D. Winkle

Mr. Elmer Sutton, whom most called "Lucky", the head of the clan, stood high and wide as me and a might thicker, all muscle and sinew. After supper his family and I arranged ourselves on quilt-covered sofas and hand-made seats. I told them the story of Mr. Onselm and his Ugly Bird, then Mr. Sutton commenced telling me what happened to them when they lived near Kelly, in the state of Kentucky.

Lucky nodded at a lank man with a close-cropped head of yellow brown hair.

"We kidded Billy Ray about seein' a flyin' saucer, but half an hour later we had to eat our words. The dog started barkin' up a storm and finally crawled under the house. Billy Ray and I stepped out back and spotted a glowing something moving through the fields. Damnedest thing we ever saw: Round head with no hair, big ogly frog-eyes, legs and arms thin as broomsticks. Arms long enough so's it could scratch its ankles without bendin' down. About high enough to look a door in the latch; and shiny silver all over."

"Sounds a might like what the Cherokee people called the Moon-Eyes," I said.

Mr. Sutton arched up a brown inchworm of an eyebrow.


"Yes, sir," I told him. "When the Cherokee first arrived in the mountains of Tennessee and Georgia, they found they weren't the only ones there. The land was inhabited by a race of strange white people -- not like us, but albino-white -- with huge round eyes like the full moon, who hated sunlight. The Cherokee didn't take to them, and they drove them out."

Billy Ray Taylor snorted.

"I have to agree with the Indians. I sure didn't take to 'em, either."

Mr. Sutton smiled crookedly.

"Billy Ray had even better reason than the rest of us. Got laughed at for seein' their ship, or saucer, and then -- Well, that first critter we saw raised its hands as if it were bein' robbed at gun-point, and we saw that it had long, curved claws a painter would've been proud to own. It kept a-comin' and it kept a-comin' and Billy and me grabbed rifle and shotgun. When it got to about twenty feet away, we decided that was close enough, and we shot. But the critter just flipped backward and run off again."

"Sounded like shootin' an empty bucket," put in Mr. Taylor.

Mr. Sutton nodded.

"We went inside, and soon another google-eyed face popped up at a window. We shot right through the screen at it. Now the kids and the women-folk started screaming, so we went out to see if we killed this'n. We decided to sneak out back. Billy Ray started out first -- when from the eaves here comes a long, clawed hand a-grabbin' at his head. Alene there yanked him back, and I ducked out to shoot at the thing on the roof. It got knocked back -- but it kept goin', floating like, and it just drifted over the edge of the roof."

Billy Ray rubbed his scalp.

"I can feel the critter's hand, its claws rakin' like so many tacks, to this day," he said.

"There was another in a tree close by," continued Lucky. "Billy Ray came out to shoot it with me. It just floated too, and when it finally reached the ground it ran off. Then yet another dashed out from the side of the house. I shot it when it was right in front of me; it just hopped up and scurried back to the woods. We had to be hitting 'em, you couldn't ask for better targets! They glowed like foxfire in the dark, and when we yelled, or a gun went off, they just glowed all the brighter."

I frowned up at the rafters of the big log house, like you do when you're thinking.

"Seems I've read of this story before, in a newspaper or a book. You shot at the critters through the evening, until finally you decided to high-tail it to town."

Mr. Sutton took a swig of beer, dark and foamy.

"What's a man to do when a twenty-gauge shell at ten feet just pushes the damned thing down? We drove into Hopkinsville faster'n a bobcat with its tail on fire, I'm not ashamed to say it. The police came out, looked around for hours, didn't find anything. So they left."

"But that's not all," I prompted.

Lucky Sutton shook his head.

"We all went to bed, can you believe it? And soon enough, Momma Lankford --" he nodded to a woman with bifocal spectacles and a brown shawl -- "She saw a long clawed hand reach up to her window and scratch at it. I grabbed up a gun and shot again, right through the screen.

"And so it began again -- we shot at the silver critters nigh to sunrise. Finally they left.

"Just about every reporter in the country came by afterwards. They clogged all the roads hereabout, trampled our crops, and just walked through out house like they owned it."

"So finally you moved away," I said. "Because of all the trespassers afterwards."

Mr. Sutton scratched his head.

"Yeah -- that's mainly it."

Mrs. Lankford held up a knitting needle and waggled it at him.

"That's not all of it, Elmer, and you know it." She turned to me, her frown softening up. "John, those goblins or Martians showed up again, a year or two later. This time we didn't tell a soul. Soon as it was light, we upped and moved. A couple years after that, they found us again. We just blocked off the doors and windows and waited for 'em to leave."

She looked toward the windows, which had the thickest shutters I'd seen in a long while.

"Seems almost like they've attached themselves to us, someway. Seems like they can find us, wherever we move, and sometimes it seems like we can feel them coming 'round again."

"As in Coleridge's poem of the Ancient Mariner," I suggested. "'Like one, that on a lonesome road/ Doth walk in fear and dread,/ And having once turned round walks on,/ And turns no more his head;/ Because he knows, a frightful fiend/ Doth close behind him tread.'"

"I reckon so," said Mrs. Lankford. "Sometime, I'm afeared, they may tread right up to us and carry us off to wherever they come from."

She looked worried-like toward the front door, and it seemed I felt a quiet tension from the rest of the family, near a dozen folk all told.

"You feel 'em now," I ventured.

"It's kind of like a kerchief tied tight around your head -- a pressure," said the old woman.

I rose and took up my guitar.

"I think I'd like to step out and have a look-see. No, you stay here," I added as Lucky rose.

Mr. Sutton balled his hands into fists.

"If you think we're just going to sit here like scared rabbits while you go out alone --"

"Its you they want, whatever the reason, not me," I said. "'Sides which, there's something I want to try on 'em, and I'd sooner try it alone."

The men-folk argued a minute more, but Mrs. Lankford hushed them down. I stepped out into the evening dark, and the door slammed a might quick behind.

It was a night to sit on the porch and gab quietly; the air was cool, with just a hint of breeze sighing in the trees; crickets chirped, and purple light from the sunset still outlined sheds, wagons, and the hickory and chestnuts of the forest. A barn owl hooted and flapped down from a high limb and up over the house. I stepped from the plank porch and crossed the yard toward the woods. A firefly drifted along like a cinder, blinking on and off --

I found another glow, up against the wide trunk of a black gum, like the will-o'-wisps that form in marsh country. Might could have been a patch of genuine foxfire, but after a moment I noted another sickly glowing patch, then another, just visible through the crowd of trees.

Finally one of the glows parted from a gnarly oak, bobbing closer like a patch of mist shifted by a breeze. As it came closer I made out a shape, human-like at first, then not so human as my eyes picked out details.

Friends, the Suttons and Lankfords had described their unwelcome visitors, and I'd read other descriptions in the 'papers and magazines of the day, but no words come close to the seeing of them in the silver flesh. The Moon-Eye or goblin maybe reached a grown man's belt-line, its chest wide enough, but its legs thin and scrawny, and its feet like the rubber end of a bathroom plunger. A great, round, bald head sat on its shoulders like an ostrich egg. Two googly eyes, like radio dials painted gray, a-stared off in different directions, like the eyes of those chameleon-lizards that change their colors. An ear hung out on each side of the head like a triangular pennant. There weren't no nose at all, and a single line across its face, like a razor slash, served it as a mouth.

As Mr. Sutton had allowed, this critter held its arms up as if I were robbing it with a gun. Its arms were long and skinny, like lengths of garden hose, and its hands ended in stubby fingers with white hooks of claws. It ran clumsy-like, a fast waddle from the hips as if its knees didn't work. It seemed to have trouble passing a fallen log; one arm bent down and helped push it up like a crutch. Now I saw that its arms were so long, it about had to raise them: it would have raked the ground with its sharp nails otherwise.

A second silver melon of a head edged out from behind a tree, and an arm like white ivy slipped up the bark. A blur of light told me a third critter scampered from behind one hickory trunk to behind another. Egg-heads and knob-eyes now poked up from behind stumps, stone fences, and fallen logs. The Moon-Eyes seemed determined to flank me, or maybe get past me at the house.

"Y'all don't seem to take a hint," I called to the woods. "You wore out your welcome at this household long ago. You might ought to peddle your wares elsewhere."

The gangly critters grew bolder. More stepped out and waddled at me, arms up but clawed fingers sickling inward over their heads. Might have been they were showing me they held no weapons, like how the human handshake began, but maybe they were just getting those hook-nails ready.

"I can't say I'm taking to you, either," I continued. It was true: The silver goblins glowed a little brighter when you talked at them.

My fingers crept down over the strings of my guitar like a spider's legs over a web. If talking affected them somehow, I wondered how one of the old songs would hit them.

"Three holy kings, four holy saints,/ At heaven's high gate that stand,/ Speak out to bid all evil wait/ And stir no foot or hand."

True enough, the goblin-followers of the Sutton clan stopped in their tracks, their shiny forms flashing a might shinier as I sang. Yet soon as I stopped, they waddled forward again. I continued with the Last Judgement Song:

"The fire from heaven will fall at last/ On wealth and pride and power --/ We will not know the minute, and/ We will not know the hour."

Again the knob-eyed critters stopped, and with each chord and syllable they glowed a little brighter. It occurred to me, maybe these creatures really were what the Cherokee named Moon-Eyes. Maybe they fled Tennessee for Kentucky and have holed up there to this very day. I thought of a song taught me by an old Cherokee fellow I'd met in Drowning Creek, a song meant to drive away storm clouds -- not exactly the right choice, but if there's a song to get rid of silver, bat-eared goblins, I've yet to hear it.

"Yuhahi, yuhahi, yuhahi, yuhahi, yuhahi," I sang. The shiny critters paused, flaring brighter.

"Yuhahi, yuhahi, yuhahi, yuhahi, yuhahi," I sang again. The goblins bent their arms and folded down their triangles of ears.

"Sge! Ha-nagwa hinahunski tayi!"

I sang more of the old native's song, as best I could recollect it, and the silver creatures ran again -- away from me, crossing back and forth, hitting one another and bouncing off.

"Atali tsugunyi wite tsatanun!"

Friends, I sang louder and louder, and those goblins glowed bright and brighter, like electric bulbs with legs. They scattered into the trees, their glows sending the tall shadows of the trunks left and right like huge black goblins were chasing the shiny little ones.

I reached the last of the difficult syllables, and as I finished -- the Lord as my witness -- the knob-eyed goblins popped, bursting all over the forest like a flopping string of firecrackers.

I stood and stared, my voice and guitar still.

"Well," I said at last to the now-dark wood. "That was about the worst reaction any audience has had to my singing."

A pair of lanterns floated my way from the house. They lit up the faces of Billy Ray Taylor and Lucky Sutton, both a-smiling.

"Guess they were tone-deaf," said Mr. Sutton. "And I'm thinking they won't be following us no more. Come on back to the house, John, and I guarantee we'll be the most appreciative audience ever."

I didn't shoulder my guitar but held it in front as I followed them back, fingers itching to play.

The End

Silver John/John the Balladeer is the creation of Manly Wade Wellman and is copyright © by the Estate of Manly Wade and Frances Wellman. "Away Down the Road a Piece" is a fannish work presented for entertainment purposes only.

Read more about the Kelly-Hopkinsville Goblins.

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