Roogcha by Patrick Winters
The air in the HR-V was starting to get a little warm for Ethan Spaulding; rather than turning on the AC, he opted to roll down the window and let the fresh Georgia air in. It came in at a mad rush, muddling the sounds of Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band on the radio. The wind whipping by gave him a lively smack straight across the side of his face, one that he relished.
“Uh . . . could you not?” Jamie half-hollered over the noise.
Ethan glanced up to the rearview, seeing his son sitting behind him. He squeezed his jaw tight, trying not to laugh at the boy’s reflection. The teenager’s face was scrunched up like he’d just eaten something horridly sour, and his shoulder-length hair was blowing back and around like mad, taking the brunt of the wind.
“Too much fresh air, for you?” Ethan called back, knowing full well that it was. “It’ll do you some good; it’s got to be better than the smell of your bedroom.”
Natalie turned her attention away from the passenger window and looked back to their son. For a split second, Ethan could see a grin on her face that was threatening to explode from a round of laughter. She managed to hold it in, though, and she gave Ethan a mock, stern look after he spent a moment longer than he needed to with his finger just hovering over the window switch.
“Roll it up,” she finally said in her “mother voice,” that tone where mothers strung out their words to their full, commanding effect. It was made to work on children, but it could always scold any age, and Ethan got the point. He rolled the window up some, leaving it about halfway open, to where he could still get his refreshing jolt of nature without blowing away his son.
One couldn’t help but feel enlivened by such a breeze, or so Ethan felt. He breathed in the earthy atmosphere of the Raven Cliffs Wilderness, the aroma of pine mixing with an aqueous hint that still lingered on the air, courtesy of a light drizzle that had puttered out less than an hour ago. He had traveled through just about every section of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest (at one point or another) in his forty years, but the Raven Cliffs Wilderness had always been his favorite stretch of the 850,000 plus acres of forest. Its mountainous terrain and vibrant colors, in any season, held a special place in his heart, with all of the wilderness looking like a mythic scene pulled right out of some fairy tale.
He still recollected the summer when his parents had dragged him out to the trails for the first time, much to his teenage woes and irritation. He hadn’t been too keen on wasting a Saturday spent with boring Mother Nature, especially when his parents had been fighting again; they had argued a lot back then, and Ethan knew the trip had been a small, desperate attempt to bring the family closer together. Much to his surprise, their trek into the woods seemed to do just that, quelling his parents’ fights and making life at home noticeably better for all (at least, for a good while). What had surprised him, even more, was just how much he’d enjoyed himself that June day, walking the paths of the lively woods and visiting the renowned Raven Cliff Falls. Thinking on them now, with the smell of rain in his nostrils and the wind sounding like rushing water, he could see the waterfalls clear and crisp in his mind’s eye.
“Uhm, honey?” Natalie spoke up, pulling him out from his memories. “The road?”
Ethan hadn’t realized that he was about to drive them off the winding, two-lane way and right into a copse of pines ahead. He turned the wheel, the HR-V’s tires giving a slight screech as they took the bend in the road. Natalie braced herself as the car started to climb a hill, the elevation gradually rising the further they went into the wilderness.
“Where’s your mind at, babe?” she wondered, making a show of peering into his ear. “Doesn’t look like it’s where it usually is . . .”
Ethan laughed. “It’s in the back, with that turkey of yours that I can’t wait to dig into. I’m starting to get hungry.”
“That’s a lie,” Jamie said, jumping on his chance. “No one is waiting for mom’s cooking.”
“Hey!” Natalie said defensively, turning back and pointing an accusatory finger at her son. “You love my turkey, whether you know it or not!”
Ethan chuckled at that. His thoughts drifted right back to the wilderness, and why he’d returned to it with his own family in tow, this time around. The past couple of months had put a distance between the Spauldings. It was nothing severe or dire, but a disconnect had certainly become evident. Between Jamie starting his senior year of high school, Natalie’s loaded work as a government contractor, and Ethan’s determination to get his first book finished (while simultaneously operating the local newspaper), there was plenty keeping the three in their own little worlds. “Family time” had been limited to maybe three dinners together out of every week, when either Ethan or Natalie weren’t working overtime, or when Jamie didn’t prefer to eat alone up in his room. By some miracle, they could all catch a movie on Netflix once in a while.
They saw less of each other, knew less about the daily grind of one another’s lives, and had grown too used to those odd silences when there’s plenty to say, but no desire to say it. By the time November had rolled around, Ethan couldn’t stand that terrible new status quo any longer. Then, he’d had an idea.
Thanksgiving had been around the corner, and they’d had no big plans for it at the time. Natalie’s family was scattered across the country and too busy to reunite for the holiday, and ever since Ethan’s parents got their divorce (the occasional trip to the woods not being enough to save that patient train-wreck), family gatherings were pretty much avoided at all costs. And Ethan figured a regular old turkey dinner between just the three of them wouldn’t do much to bring the desired vigor back into their familial dynamic. So, he’d suggested an outing—a special Thanksgiving picnic out in the forest of his youth, where they could hopefully reconnect and get back to being a family in actuality, rather than just by name.
So, now that it was Turkey Day, they’d cooked and carved their bird, whipped up stuffing, mashed potatoes, creamed peas, and other snacks, broke out the Tupperware, and drove the 40 some odd miles out into the wilderness. Now, laughing and bantering on as they hadn’t done for what seemed like an age and a day, Ethan was reassured that this was exactly what they’d needed.
As “Night Moves” faded to silence on the radio, Jamie spoke up in his coy, joking way. “Hey, now that Grandpa Bob is done, can we maybe listen to something from this century?”
Ethan glanced over to his wife with a grin, and she rolled her eyes, grinning a tad herself.
Yep, Ethan thought as he looked back to the road. This is just what we needed.
After another twenty minutes of driving (and listening to something from this century) the Spauldings came upon a small parking area. It was the first stretch of trails they’d happened across out here, and an inviting sign proudly said that there were picnic and rest spots along the paths. They pulled into the lot, having their pick of the empty parking area. When they got out of their car, they stretched their limbs, breathed in the fresh air, and gave due time to appreciate the silence of the lonesome wilderness.
They loaded up on their picnic items and set out on the trails. Ethan lugged along a universal stowaway potlucker that kept their food warm, and Natalie hoisted a cooler of drinks and a basket of plates, utensils, and the like. Jamie had claimed the can of bear spray before they’d even left the house; Ethan had bought it on the off-chance that a Yogi or Boo-Boo happened along on their outing. While bears did, indeed, live throughout these forests, most took up residence in the deeper woods, away from the fringes of civilization and the bustle of people. Ethan reckoned that they wouldn’t be likely to venture this far out from those secluded areas, but just in case one had the gumption, a little protection and deterrent wouldn’t hurt. Jamie was less assured; as they started off on the trails, he had the big yellow can of spray at the ready, his eyes darting off to the side now and then in caution.
The forest was astoundingly lovely this time of year, the towering pines about them colored in hues of red and orange that only a late Fall’s touch could bring. It was all quite serene in its near-stillness, the knocking of a woodpecker or the twitter of a junco sounding out occasionally from on high. All was so quiet that at one point, when Natalie stepped on a felled branch and set it to snapping, Jamie spun about and nearly doused her in the face with the pepper spray.
“Whoa! Watch the friendly fire, there,” Natalie said. Jamie shrugged an apology, his face reddening like the pines around them, and they kept right on with their walk.
Eventually, they came upon a cleared space winding a short ways off from the trails, and where a couple of wooden, chipped-paint picnic tables sat before a dense tree line. It was the perfect spot.
“I don’t know about you guys,” Ethan said as they stepped up to the first of the tables. “But I’m ready to sit and stuff my face—a true American pastime.”
He and Natalie set their loads down on the table and sat down, but Jamie kept on walking right towards the trees.
“What are you doing, Jamie?” Ethan asked.
Jamie shot him an incredulous look. “We’ve been on the road for the better part of an hour, and I had half a liter of Dr. Pepper before we left home. Add all the walking to that, and I’ll let you finish that equation for yourself.”
Natalie scrunched up her face after doing the math and Ethan just giggled. “Okay,” he called after his son. “Just don’t go too far. And watch your aim—wouldn’t want to hit a sleeping bear.”
Jamie let out some humorless laughter, but he kept the can of bear spray with him all the same as he stepped out of sight and into the trees.
Natalie set out a festive tablecloth to cover the rather rough face of the table (including a bit of bird poop that had stained it), then they started getting out the food and utensils. Ethan was glad to find that the potlucker had kept all of the food quite warm, and his stomach started to grumble as the scent of turkey and potatoes rose up over all the pine.
“I’m glad we did this, hon,” Natalie said as they set things up. She gave him a grateful smile, and Ethan returned it right back. Swept up in his sudden happiness, he blew her a kiss, like a love-struck kid in some rom-com movie. Natalie smiled all the more and caught it.
They finished arranging the Tupperware and set up plates for everyone, and Natalie thieved a bit of turkey before they began. They stood back, took a look at their work, and were satisfied.
“Come and get it, Jamie!” Ethan called out. “While it’s hot!”
They looked to the tree line, but Jamie didn’t appear, nor did he call out that he was coming.
“You’ve watered the plants enough, bud!” Ethan called again. Surely his son had to be done with his “business” by now. But, after another moment passed, they still didn’t see or hear him approaching.
“Jamie!” Natalie tried, as well. Again, no sign.
“He’s probably wandered off to check something out,” Ethan mumbled, his slight irritation showing. “I’ll get him.”
“Good, then I can shove this turkey into his mouth and prove how much he loves it.” Natalie sat down and reached into the cooler for a Pepsi, watching as Ethan stepped off into the trees.
Ethan started looking all about, hoping his son was done relieving himself, and that nothing which couldn’t be unseen would pop up in his vision. He didn’t think that Jamie could have gone very far, and yet he didn’t see him anywhere near. Ethan looked around every tree and bit of brush (quite cautiously), and found himself walking further and further into the trees.
Still no sign of his son.
He started to wonder if Jamie was trying to be funny. He waited for the moment when the boy would leap out at him and try to scare him, perhaps revenge for all the bear comments. “Come on, Jamie!” he called sternly, not up for any such prank.
As he turned about a tree, Ethan stepped on something round. The thing gave a metallic rattle as he nearly slipped and fought for his balance. Holding back a curse, he looked down and saw that it was Jamie’s can of bear spray lying among the roots. He instantly felt his face going red in surprise and his hunger fell away, leaving a prickle of fear there, instead.
The can was slightly bent from where he’d stepped on it—and his shoe had left a print in the strange splash of red that coated the yellow canister. It was wet and looked freshly spilt.
It looked like blood.
“Jamie?!” Ethan shouted , fighting off the dizzying sensation that had quickly struck his mind. “Jamie, where are you?!” He turned and turned about, looking here, there, and everywhere for a glimpse of his son.
As he huffed his breaths and kept on scanning the forest, he heard Natalie’s voice rise up behind him. “Ethan, what’s wrong?”
He looked back and saw his wife rushing forward, her face looking as though it had dropped a shade paler. Her eyes were wide in questioning and her hair bounced wildly as she ran forward.
Before Ethan could speak his fears, a shrill, raspy call rose up from off to his right. He had barely even turned when something came leaping up at him through the vegetation, hopping on his back and setting its arms around his neck and arms. Ethan howled in fright as the thing kept up its screech, the noise angry and deafening. He could hear Natalie giving a scream of her own as she came to a shocked halt, still yards away.
Ethan felt the thing’s hands upon him, grabbing and pummeling as whatever was attacking him tried to bring him down. With a desperate cry and a tight grasp around one of the thing’s arms, he hauled it off of him and sent it head-over-heels to the forest floor. He recoiled from the thing, arms up in defense while it squirmed back up onto its haunches, ready for another leap.
A brief stare-off between man and thing allowed Ethan a chance to take his odd attacker in. It looked . . . human. And yet, it clearly wasn’t.
The humanoid crouched like an animal of prey, its lanky limbs hanging in a simian fashion. It was utterly naked, the finely-toned muscles of its lithe body on full, alarming display. Its skin was ultra-white—or would have been, if not for the bits of leaves and dirt-smears streaked all across it. Its crotch was a covered in a thicket of dark hair, with the hint of a pale penis barely discernible through it all. Its face was contorted in a show of rage, a spittle-flecked mouth of black gums and loose, brown teeth bared at Ethan. A frizzy mop of straight-black hair hung about its rounded head. Its eyes were spaced farther apart than a regular person’s ought to be, almost like a chameleon’s, tiny and with irises of confounding gray and inhuman hatred.
The thing let out another of its screeches and pounced at Ethan.
Ethan reacted by lifting his foot and kicking out at its chest, wanting to keep it far away from him. Its cry was cut short as it tumbled onto its back, arms flailing for some purchase. That’s when he heard Natalie scream—this time in dread.
He turned back and saw that two more of the nude creatures—one male, one female (its breasts small but noticeable)—had grabbed hold of his wife and were hastily dragging her off, pulling her by the arms as she slid across the forest floor. She kicked in defiance and shouted for his help.
“Natalie!” he shrieked.
He made to move forward, but his pallid attacker had gotten to its knees and threw itself about his legs. It latched onto him and started clawing at his waist, pulling itself up to him and dragging him down.
Ethan took a few steps, lugging the creature along with him. He set his hands at its throat and squeezed, trying to shake it off. It gurgled and choked, and its gray eyes looked to be on the verge of bursting from its efforts. As Natalie screamed again, her cry growing gradually fainter as she was taken off, Ethan gave it a hard punch to the nose; it let go and fell to its rear, but was right back to lunging for him. This time, Ethan drove his knee up into its jaw, and with a pained groan, the thing fell down on its back, unconscious.
Ethan turned and bolted after Natalie and her captors. He saw the two things dashing through the trees, surprisingly quick in spite of having to pull along their abductee. Their thin bodies betrayed their apparent strength, and the distance between them and Ethan was growing farther and farther , no matter how fast he gave chase. He was already breathing harder than an Olympian runner in the final stretch, and a pang was irritating his side, but he kept at it, following them as they weaved through the wilderness, determined to save his wife—and his boy, wherever he was . . .
Just as they started to climb up a grassy, bush-littered hill rising up before them, the two creatures stopped and set hands to the mound of earth. They kept Natalie in their clutches as—to Ethan’s surprise—a hole opened up in the side of the hill. The pale things lifted up a grassy hatch set into the face of the earth—an expertly camouflaged trapdoor that lead somewhere into the ground. The female hauled a leg into the hole and climbed in as the male wrangled Natalie, and then it too was hopping into the hole, pulling Natalie right in after it. She gave another call for Ethan as their deathly white hands grabbed at her arms and her head disappeared beneath the hatch.
Ethan threw himself at the hill and grabbed hold of Natalie’s bucking legs, pulling at her with all he had. Her teary face came back out of the hole and she stared at him, pleading for him to get her out of this with a wordless wail. The things’ hands grabbed her tighter, though, and gave another pull. Ethan fell across his wife’s legs, picking up her screams as he fought to free her. He gave another mighty pull and felt a little hope as one pair of hands let go and shot back into the hole.
Ethan positioned his feet solidly against the earth and made ready to give another hard tug when those hands returned—and one of them was grasping a sharp blade, carved entirely from some big, blood-stained bone.
In horror, Ethan watched as the hands grabbed Natalie’s hair, put the wicked edge of the knife up to her neck, and set it to cutting straight across her throat. Her cry was lost as her skin and muscle split. Blood sprayed out from the wound, shooting out at Ethan’s face and into his mouth in a red rain. He tasted his wife’s blood and spat it out as he recoiled, his grip on her failing.
That was all the humanoids needed to claim her once more, and as her eyes rolled up into the back of her head, Natalie was dragged all the way into the hole.
Ethan stood there a moment, thrust somewhere beyond dismayed as he wiped his wife’s blood from his face. He let out a sound that was caught between a scream and a gag, his tongue tinged with a sickening copper taste. Fighting back the urge to vomit, he leapt to the hatch and flung it open, going in after his wife. He growled in rage and unaccepting loss as he crawled into a dark tunnel that was just wide enough to clear on all fours. Ahead of him, going down the steep incline of the tunnel, he could hear the snickering and the huffing of the creatures, along with the sound of something scraping dirt—his poor Natalie. As he crept along, his hands touched warm, wetted soil, and he knew exactly what had wetted it.
Further and further they went into the darkness, winding down and down into the earth, until the tunnel finally leveled out, and Ethan could see a dull glow at its apparent end. He saw the silhouettes of the humanoids leaping out of the hole and lugging Natalie out behind them. Ethan hurried his pace and lunged right out of the tunnel, landing hard on the dirt floor of a large chamber.
He looked up to find himself in an underground room, the dull orange glow alighting it from a flaming torch jabbed into the dirt walls. Thresholds had been dug out here and there, creating darkened corridors that must have lead into other chambers and caverns in this horrid underground. Bones lay here and there at the rooms’ edge, and the two pale creatures had set Natalie amidst them, her back up against a wall and her head lolling. Ethan moaned as he realized that another body was in the room, as well: his son, Jamie, laying on his side right beside his mother, his head gaping from a cleaving gash across his forehead and his eyes holding a dead stare.
Ethan let out a scream that filled the room and echoed down the corridors. The pair of humanoids turned to him and readied themselves for conflict, crouching low in anticipation. Ethan pushed himself up to his feet and threw himself towards them, wanting to fight them and beat them and kill them.
But as he neared them, a great big hand came from out of nowhere and grasped his throat in a powerful chokehold, cutting off his war-cry.
Ethan was lifted right off his feet and hauled around to stare into the face of a giant. It was another of the humanoids, but whereas the others were short and lanky, this one was towering and muscular. Another male, it stood well over six feet tall, looking like some Neanderthal bodybuilder, of sorts. It had an older, much more severe look to its face than those of the others, the skin wrinkled with apparent age. A pink scar traced along its cheek, and it sneered at him with all the ugliness it could muster.
“Tal na já-hoo!” the giant said in a lion’s growl, speaking in some surprising language Ethan could not possibly know.
It lowered him down until he knelt before it, and it put its other hand about his neck. It tightened its grip, and Ethan felt his windpipe constricting under the superhuman pressure. He tried to beat its arms away, but he was utterly weak in comparison to such strength. He started to see stars bursting before him as the thing spoke again.
“Lo-ta ko pa, roogcha.”
And then it wrung his neck, a sickening snap ringing out in the room.
The deed was done, as simple as that. The giant loosened its grip with a satisfied smile and let Ethan’s body fall before the feet of his wife.
“Kál mor,” the giant said to its two children, pointing at the three dead people. “Ták ruu na.”
The two grinned and nodded, and the giant lumbered off into another part of their underground abode to see to other matters. Then, the brother and sister set about completing their father’s commands.
By the time night had fallen above-ground, the family of Rhák-te—a people which had lived and died in the underground for unnumbered generations—had finally finished their preparations. It was time to celebrate and indulge in their bounty.
It wasn’t often enough that they came across above-grounders, and to have encountered three—on this day, of all days—was nothing short of fortuitous. So it was with great joy and anticipation that they entered into one of their caverns, where a great slab of stone sat in the middle of the echoing abode. A dozen of them crowded around the stone, kneeling down before it in the flickering light of a dozen fires burning about the rock floor.
Upon the slab’s chiseled gray top, in crude bowls hewn from stone and carved from wood, sat the delicacies of their glorious feast. There were the usual dishes: simple berries plucked from up above, the juicy eyes of felled birds, and the stripped meat of groundhogs. All were quite good, to the Rhák-te’s palettes, but it was the above-grounders who’d provided the rarest morsels. Firstly, there was the food the above-grounders had brought with them to the woods (still in their strange, transparent bowls which were made of neither stone nor wood) and which the Rhák-te had claimed as their own. They knew not what the fares were, but it all smelled wonderful enough.
Then, there were the above-grounders themselves—their own meat and bodies contributing to the grand meal.
The child’s intestines had been cut and pulled from him and diced into fine chunks. The bits of the organs had then been mixed in with batches of honey gathered from the combs that lay scattered through the forests. It made for quite an appetizing paste. The boy’s skull had been skinned, broken, and repurposed as a cup to drink water from, the wells and streams that snaked down into the earth supplying life itself to the subsurface people.
The woman’s cooked tongue lay across a slate plate, its once pink hue replaced by a succulent red color. It wasn’t much, but it would certainly please whichever one of the lucky revelers who was able to lay claim to it. What would perhaps be a more filling course consisted of the woman’s sizable breasts, which had been cut from her body and smothered in a smattering of heated mushrooms. One of the brood had happened across the fungi just the day before.
Last, but certainly not least, was the main course of the evening, lying supine along the great stone. It was the man—all of the man, the entire bulk of his body the centerpiece of the macabre meal. He had been stripped and shaved off all his hair before the under-grounders saw to the rest of him. They’d taken torches to his body, heating and burning every inch of it for two full hours until his skin was charred black or blistered in bloody red splotches. The Rhák-te liked their meat best when it was prepared this way, and their mouths watered at the simple sight of the man. The smell of him set their stomachs to rumbling. They couldn’t wait to cut and tear at his cooked flesh, to feel it gnashing upon their teeth and sliding down their gullets, warming their yearning bellies.
But before they could begin, their wá-né—the hulking patriarch of the family—had to be acknowledged. He would be given the first taste of the feast, as per tradition. So, as he knelt down at the narrow end of the stone altar, the wá-ya—his mate—took up a bowl of the intestine and honey blend. She sat down beside him and bowed her head to him, as did their children and relatives.
“Ka na, roogcha!” the woman said humbly, handing him the bowl of the sweet concoction.
“Ka ta, roogcha,” the man replied, bowing his head to her, in return. He took the bowl, scooped some of the paste up in his fingers, and swallowed it down. The others immediately set to grabbing at their own food as he dipped his hand in for more. Their arms were a flurry of motion as they reached, pulled, rent, and chewed. As they feasted, they mumbled “roogcha” to one another the whole while.
“Roogcha,” in their strange, brutish language, would have roughly translated into a sharing of “gratitude” or “praise.”
Or, more simply, “thanks.”