"Under the Blossom that Hangs on the Bough"
by Stephen M. Davis
That was the year everyone was off hunting the panther. Whether the
panther was real or imagined was never firmly established, but in that
summer of nineteen-hundred and eleven, men--even some intrepid
women--could be found up and down Jackson County.
The timid searched for their panther more domestically. On the
outskirts of town, perhaps, where farmers could still be seen well into
the evening hours on a summer day. Or looked for in McGunty’s bar. Or
under a pool table in the old schoolhouse, which no longer had a name
attached since the Coloreds had brought in the pool tables and the
still that everyone knew smoked in a backroom, but which was tolerated
because it dispensed a clear, smooth liquor that was only temporarily
The adventurous, though, trekked farther afield. Young boys, who had
no fear because they were still too young to know the difference
between a panther in theory and one in practice, went often as far as
the Highlands river, and the bolder of them would even swim across on a
dare, raising their arms on the other bank triumphantly, whilst mindful
not to celebrate too loudly lest the panther be somewhere close by
Older, more experienced hunters and trappers mostly went nowhere at
all, because experience in large part consists of knowing when it is
worth putting on one’s shoes, and the truth was that no one had seen
the panther, other than by second-hand, except Ms. Emilia Martel. Her
account was not wholly believed, as she was known to the community as a
well-meaning member of the Altar Guild who faithfully reported her
Saturday evening ravishment at the hands of Moses Greely to the sheriff
every Monday morning. Moses had been the colored help in the livery,
until he had left this Earth some ten years before, so the sheriff
thought he was doing well for himself, all things considered.
Some there were, though, who were no longer children, yet
inexperienced, whether through retardation or gullibility, or who had
that deep cynicism some men develop as a result of having encountered
irony so often in so many forms as to cause them always to bet on the
most outside chance in any gamble.
One from this last group was Octavius Barron Browne, a man well
remembered by the residents of Calhoun as the fellow who nearly--by all
rights should have--died after drinking, on a bet, an unlabeled
brown-bottle solution, on the off-chance that it did not contain
arsenic, and whose last statement before slipping into a long coma had
been, “This changes nothing.”
Barron, who had reconfigured the last man foolish enough to call him
Octavius, had purchased from a mail-order outfit an outdoor rig worthy
of a hobo down on his luck.
He then proceeded to wander farther up into the Piedmont than most men
were willing to go. Hunters and trappers generally won’t go places
where those pursuits aren’t profitable, and of the hearty adventurers
who are driven by their natures to go to forlorn and freakish places,
either none had been called to the High Air, or none had returned to
write a best-selling adventure book about it.
Barron knew these things, but he was not a fool, only a skeptic
sadly lacking in the qualities of mystery or romanticism.
He crossed Highland River. He paralleled Seneca Creek as it rose up
towards the mountains from which it originated. He walked across
Issaqueena where the Cherokee had a thriving village with lawyers, a
library, and an apple orchard, until our county’s namesake gathered
them all up and moved them to Oklahoma.
Remnants of the orchard still remain, though now the apples are
small and bitter. There is a tale that the princess Issaqueena still
waits for her English lover at the waterfall nearby, and that Cherokee
braves as gray as wood-ash will haunt the dreams of any white man
foolish enough to sleep near the old orchard.
Barron slept peacefully in the orchard, though, and was troubled
neither by princesses nor Cherokee hunters. He packed his gear, kicked
out his fire, spilling the remains of the coffee on the ashes, and
began his ascent into the tail of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The Blue Ridge now has a road being blasted through it, but in those
days there were no roads there, for nothing was there that needed
Above Walhalla, above Tammassee he went. He walked above the
demarcation line separating farmers trying to get tobacco to come out
of poor acreage, from farmers with nothing to farm, and whose
subsistence came in ways only whispered about.
Finally, he reached the High Air, where even the Cherokee didn’t go.
They claimed the gods kept their homes there. The white farmers who’d
settled close by claimed it was because things walked up there that
couldn’t be hunted, trapped, or fished. They prayed frantically in
their little white-steepled churches and whatever walked the High Air
left them to themselves.
Barron thought it sounded like a place a panther might go.
Thirteenth of June, nineteen-hundred and eleven, Barron walked
across a wasted heath that had formed in one of the innumerable hidden
valleys that fitted themselves between the hips and shoulders of the
Nothing productive would grow here. Blueberries grew wild, but only
because they grew wild. Barron had seen no sign of human habitation in
the last two days, except for a weather-eaten cabin on the edge of the
mountain he’d been coming down. A barn owl had watched him from the
broken corner of the cabin. There was a small, stone altar in a clump
of trees below the dwelling, with dried mountain flowers still upon it.
Like many things that are true in spirit, it held a measure of wonder
and terror in it. There was a difference, he thought, between laying
his money on an outside chance, and throwing his money down a well with
a bottom no light could find. The altar, to him, seemed a bottomless
well, and he hurried on his way.
So Tuesday had come and mostly gone. Barron knew it could be
treacherous walking in mountains when the sun fell far enough in the
sky. What was still light on one part of a deer trail could be pitch
black around a corner, or down an imperceptible bit of slope.
As mountain weather is wont to do, the skies grayed and Barron was
walking in a cool mist with tiny droplets collecting on his jacket.
Even in summer, it could be uncomfortable walking in mist at high
altitude. He looked for shelter and found a rocky nook in the side of
the mountain. It was not particularly deep, but it would do. He saw no
scat nor other sign that suggested any other animal was fond of
sleeping there, so he built a small fire at the entrance to his
shelter, and ate his evening meal.
He smoked for a time while he lay out of the rain on his bed roll.
He lay under a table of rocks that came together like a roof. The
outside rock face was layered with moss, and had an air of stability
about it that had suggested to Barron it was unlikely to collapse on
him while he slept.
The smoke from his fire rode the contours of the facing, through the
cracks, under the moss, and lifted off the brow of the rocks above. The
fire was built from the wood he’d gathered nearby, mostly cherry, and
had a sweet aroma. The fire was modest and he’d banked it so as to
moderate its hunger.
As he slept beneath his blanket, he heard the chimes of his
childhood--the chimes from before he’d become a skeptic, when he’d
believed all things were possible, that all injustices would be
righted, and that if he prayed hard enough, the God he prayed to would
cure the woman who perpetually coughed in the room next door.
He hadn’t heard those chimes since the day after his mother’s
funeral, when his father had taken them down and beaten them with a
hammer until there was nothing left of them but metal shards and bits
“Barron,” he heard in his sleep, and thought that his mother was
calling him. His eyes opened and he smiled, because he now realized the
chimes he had heard in his dream were really just a translation of the
sound that droplets of water were making as they fell from the
shelter’s overhang and hit the smooth, thin stones below them.
“Barron,” the voice called again, muffled but distinct to where he
knew he was not mistaken.
He could not rise. He felt certain his eyes were open, but it was
the early hours of the morning on a rainy day, and there was nothing to
see. His fire was dying and cast no shadows on the wall behind him.
“Barron,” the voice called a third time. “Why are you in my temple?”
He might well have been frightened if it weren’t that the words were
so clear, if distant, that he thought the speaker must be just outside
the shelter, where she could not be seen. He was not quite awake enough
to consider how she knew his name. His mouth did not work, but his
thoughts were clear.
“This isn’t a temple,” he thought. “It’s just a bit of shelter for
There was a low, soft laugh, and Barron thought it was coming from
behind what he knew was a solid back wall with nothing but mountain on
the other side.
“Don’t be afraid. I find my pleasure in falling rain and hidden
pools in mountains, and in springs, and make my house accordingly.”
“What do you want of me?” he asked, having once again become master
of his tongue.
“What do you seek?” the voice asked.
Barron thought hard on that. To start over. To be left here in
peace, to listen forever to the sound of the water on the brow of this
shelter, and to taste its sweetness as it runs behind the moss where
the smoke is. For his mother to live, and for his father not to have
died with her.
But a kind of silence and aloneness came over him at those thoughts.
Finally, he closed his eyes again and said, “To see the panther.”
“Then come,” the voice said, “come look.”
And Barron rose from his bed and walked to the shelter’s entrance.
He put a hand on the edge of the rock roof as he leaned out. The rock
was worn smooth. The palm of his hand fit the rock as though many men
had steadied themselves just so as they leaned out here in the dark.
It was obvious to him now, under the light of a horned moon, in the
dying embers of a fire, that this was a grove, and that the goddess
In the light he saw the outline of a great cat, its form breaking,
reforming, breaking and reforming as it passed in front of and behind
the trees in the grove. Moonlight caught the panther for a moment and
two green jewels reflected its light at him and into him. He saw the
panther as an incarnation of the goddess, and he sensed that the
panther saw him as an incarnation of the goddess, and that, for a brief
moment, the world was as the world had been on the first day.
Then his panther was gone.
* * *
Barron returned to Calhoun, not the same as the Barron who’d left.
He no longer concerned himself with the world’s continuing attempts not
to live up to expectations. It had exceeded expectations the one time.
He was occasionally asked by those who’d only ever heard half the
story if he’d seen the panther.
“I saw my panther,” he’d say, and that was all anyone ever got out
© 2017 Stephen M. Davis
Bio: Mr. Stephen M. Davis is an English professor and book
reviewer who is trying to make the switch to fiction.
Aphelion previously published "His New Unknown" in our April 2017
E-mail: Stephen M. Davis
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