The night I met The Chief was the first time I heard Its song.
It was a Saturday night, late in our senior year, and we had all just been to see a Smokin’ Dave and the Premo Dopes show at Planet Earth—me, Shannon, Kelly and Larry. The four of us still had a buzz on after the concert, so we wandered through the dim, foggy Old City, me and Larry one-upping each other with stupid stunts to impress the girls along the way. This was back in the late ’80s, and besides a couple of clubs, downtown had this abandoned, half-forgotten feel at night. We thought we had the city to ourselves.
Jackson Avenue disappeared into darkness under the Gay Street viaduct, and Larry and I pulled the girls into the shadows to spook them, our shrieks and howls echoing off the subterranean arch. Somewhere in the middle of the overpass it got so black we couldn’t see two feet in front of us, and I started horsing around, shoving Larry into the crumbling, cob-webby walls of the tunnel to mask my own fear. He started shoving me back and we scrapped. He was probably as freaked out under there as I was.
The black of the viaduct became the near-black of Jackson Avenue again as Larry and I emerged on the other side, still grabbing and slapping at each other like tired boxers. I pushed Larry at one of the buildings that lined the street, meaning to end things, but then I saw something, something stooped and hunched in the shadows on the sidewalk. Larry crashed into it and it screamed, an overlong cry like someone falling into a deep, deep well. Larry screamed, the girls screamed, I screamed—it was like some bad B-movie horror pic until we all calmed down and I could see what Larry had run into.
“Jesus Christ,” I said. “It’s just The Chief.”
The Chief was a local legend, a homeless guy that just about everybody who hung out downtown ran into sometime or another. I guess people called him The Chief because he had some Indian blood in him or something, but he was so old and dirty it was hard to tell. He always wore the same brown pants and the same two ratty coats, one layered on top of the other, and his hair was long and stringy. We often saw him huddled on some bench somewhere, talking to himself the way crazy people do, and usually we crossed to the other side of the street.
“My things,” The Chief muttered. “Gotta check on my things. But it dreams. Stirs. Needles for fingers….”
He was leaning against an old building just past the viaduct, both palms flat on the bricks like he was being frisked by an invisible police officer.
“Jesus,” Larry said, stepping away. “Jesus, that scared the piss out of me.” He laughed, and I laughed. We laughed to cover how scared we’d really been.
“Hollis,” Shannon said. “I want to go.”
“No, no,” I said. “It’s been a while since we said ‘How’ to The Chief.” Larry snickered.
“Nunyunu-wi!” The Chief yelled, but he kept his hands pressed against the wall. “Nunyunu-wi, dressed in stone. He sleeps, singing a song of blood and fire. Can you hear it?” He looked directly at me. “You hear it, don’t you.”
“Jesus, he’s totally whacked,” Larry said.
“Hear what old man?” I asked The Chief. “We don’t hear anything.”
The Chief closed his eyes and whimpered. Honest to God whimpered.
“Hollis, I don’t like this,” Shannon said.
“I just need to check on my things,” The Chief begged. “Please. Somebody’s going to take them.”
“What things? You mean your shopping cart?” We’d all seen him pushing a cart full of junk around the streets.
“So go check on it,” Larry said. “Nobody’s stopping you.”
“Can’t. Can’t let go,” The Chief said. Tears ran down his face. “Let go, and the building will fall.”
Behind us, Kelly laughed—a short bark like a hiccup. “Omigod. That is priceless. That is so totally priceless.”
“You’re…you’re holding up the building,” Larry said.
The building looked like it was falling apart, that much was true. Dust-covered junk was piled in the window, and the “For Sale” sign on the outside was so old the phone number had faded. But the idea that The Chief was doing anything to prevent its collapse was a joke. Still, the old man’s arms shook with exhaustion.
“Why is holding it up so important?” I asked him.
“It’s pushing. Straining. Trying to get out again. The Nunyunu-wi. It sleeps beneath the city, dressed in stone. Its dreamsong fills the forgotten sidewalks, echoes in the caves beneath the caves. Tonight, it stirs.”
Larry looked at me. “Well, that clears things up.”
“Can’t you hear it?” The Chief’s eyes were wide. He looked around like he heard something on the air, but all I heard was a siren somewhere over toward Summit Hill. “When last it woke, there was fire and blood. Soldiers in the streets. Screams down Central Avenue. He remembers,” The Chief said, pointing at me. “He knows the call. Nunyunu-wi. Dressed in stone.”
The crazy thing was, I did know what he was talking about. Or thought I did. It was an old Hollis family story, one of those black sheep things my family whispered about at reunions. That time in 1919 when the whole city of Knoxville had gone mad, when my great-great-grandfather had set up a machine gun on the corner of Gay Street and Vine and opened fire.
“They covered it over,” The Chief said, as though he was reading my mind. “Gay Street. Where it slept. But there are other caves. Other holes. They can’t fill them all. Not all the way down. Not far enough.”
“Are you talking about a cave underneath this building?” I asked.
“He’s not talking about anything,” Larry said. “He’s just a crazy old man. Come on. We’re out of here.”
“No, please!” The Chief said. “I just—I need to check on my things.”
Shannon grabbed my arm. “Stop it. Can’t you see you’re upsetting him? Let’s just go.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Larry said. He stepped away, and The Chief sobbed.
“I’ll hold up the building for you,” I told The Chief.
Larry and the girls stopped.
“Hollis, this is not funny!”
“I’m not trying to be funny! I said I’ll hold the building up for him, and I mean it.”
“Jesus, what are you trying to prove?” Larry asked.
“I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m just going to help the dude out.”
“This is retarded.”
I slapped my hands flat on the brick wall. “Screw you.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sakes. I am not going to stand around here all night and watch you hold up some dumb-ass building for some crazy-ass homeless guy!”
“Fine. Piss off then.”
I turned to The Chief and almost gagged. He smelled ripe up close, like armpit and ass.
“Check on your stuff,” I told him. “I’ll…I’ll keep the hole plugged up until you get back.”
The Chief took his hands off the building slowly, like he was transferring some great weight to me. When he was free, he turned his quivering palms over. They were raw and bloody from the rough stone. There was no telling how long he’d been standing there.
“It will tell you things,” he said quietly. He looked up at me. “Awful things.”
“Go,” I told him.
He nodded, his whole body shaking like his hands, and he loped away. We watched him until he disappeared around the next corner.
“God, can we go now?” Kelly asked.
“No!” Shannon said. “What if he comes back and Hollis isn’t holding the building up?”
Larry exploded. “For Christ’s sake! He’s not coming back! The man is in-sane. You heard all that crap about dreaming stones.”
“Dressed in stone,” I said.
“Whatever! He’s probably got half a 40-ounce stashed in some hole under the Henley Street Bridge, which is where he’s going to spend the night, piss-drunk and passed out.”
“Whether he comes back or not, I’m staying.”
“Great. Fine. Stay then. Anybody who wants a ride home better come along.”
Larry turned and walked away, and Kelly followed him.
“Wait! We can’t just leave him!” Shannon called. She turned on me. “You always ruin everything. Why are you doing this?”
I just stared at her. I had said all I was going to say. She turned with a huff and ran to join Larry and Kelly.
Why was I doing this? Clearly it wasn’t winning me points with the girls, and Larry probably wouldn’t speak to me again for the rest of the year. I needed to run and catch them and make some excuse about a stupid joke gone wrong, otherwise I’d be a laughingstock at school Monday morning.
But even though I thought about letting go, about walking away, I didn’t. Or couldn’t. It’s not like I was glued to the building, it’s just that I slowly began to feel the pressure of it. The weight of it leaning into me. Tilting. The building really was falling! I was sure of it. I pushed back, harder and harder, until I could feel the sharp edges of the brick digging into my flesh. But no matter what, I could not let go.
And that was when It sang to me. The sleeping thing, the creature dressed in stone. The Nunyunu-wi. It whispered Its name to me out of the ground, calling me. It was like some eldritch being was smothering me in a blanket of dreamsong, and I understood at once the history of this place, of this bend in the river before there were men on the Earth, when primordial monsters unknown to the annals of science roamed the land and fed on fear. I saw a great beast made of stone lie down to sleep in the earth and be covered, saw first the villages of the Cherokee drawn to Its song, then the towns of the Europeans.
I watched as a city grew, built on the sleeping corpse of an elder god, attracting gamblers and prostitutes, murderers and rapists, soldiers and madmen. Like a siren’s call, the song of the Nunyunu-wi drew more and more people, and those whom It touched got drunk in saloons and spilled blood in the streets, electrocuted cadavers in churches and worked unholy experiments on the mentally ill.
And I knew then why my great-great-grandfather and all these people had done awful things, understood in that moment how they could have been so cruel and inhuman that they could scarcely explain their actions the following day.
They had been touched by something ancient and evil.
And so had I.
It whispered to me. Sang to me of children and wire, of immolation and ecstasy, of hidden grottos by the river where I could serve my new master.
I pulled away from the wall in horror.
“I got it! I got it,” The Chief said. I blinked, and he was beside me, his hands back on the wall, the dreamsong but an echo in my head. His shopping cart was beside him now, his tattered possessions safe and near.
I staggered a few feet away, drunk on the visions of the Nunyunu-wi.
“A suit of stone,” I muttered. Vague images of the thing that had sung to me remained. “Long fingers, like claws. With a thousand eyes!” I remembered. “And tentacles—”
“A song of blood and fire,” The Chief said.
I groped for a wall to steady myself. “It can’t be real. It can’t. I can still hear it! Why can I still hear it?”
“Run, boy,” said The Chief.
The Nunyunu-wi sang to me of slivers of glass.
“Run!” The Chief yelled, waking me from my stupor. “Run far, far away!”
And I did. I ran down the sidewalks toward the university, pursued by visions of the massive, stone-skinned thing breaking through the pavement and climbing, clawing its way up and out, the air filled with the stench of sulphur and raw earth, and didn’t stop until, gasping for breath, I collapsed at the far end of Cumberland Avenue. And still, I knew, I had not run far enough.
* * * * * *
Shannon dumped me next week at school, which did not come as a surprise. I didn’t speak to her or to Larry or to Kelly again the whole last month of school. I quickly found that I didn’t care anymore, didn’t care about my “friends” and their petty concerns. The Great Old One still sang to me, even as far out as my home in Cedar Bluff, and I found I had a growing distaste for the company of those who were oblivious to Its call.
The next fall I went to Georgia Tech for pre-med, but I washed out before the first quarter was over. I did not like the city. I couldn’t sleep there. A new creature, a thing beneath Atlanta’s streets, kept me awake at night with Its murmured poetry of flesh and bone. The day I caught myself purchasing a set of scalpels, I knew it was time to leave.
I went from Georgia Tech to NC State, from there to Virginia Tech and then to Centre College. But nowhere could I escape Them. Nunyunu-wi Dressed in Stone, Uktena that Slithers, Untsaiyi the Shapeless One, the thrice-winged Tlanewa, Dakwa the Indescribable, and the rest.
When the invitation for my 20-year high school reunion found me, I laughed, and the sound of my own voice was so foreign to me that I knew I must go, knew I had to reconnect with the world, if only to prove to myself that I was still alive. Perhaps too I wanted to see if the voices would still be there, or if I had molted my madness like a snake sheds its skin. Against my better instincts, I trimmed my beard, took my first bath in months, and found a suit of clothes that hid my gaunt frame.
The reunion was held at a fancy new convention center downtown. All my old friends were there. Larry had become an orthodontist in West Knoxville. Kelly had moved to Charlotte and worked for a bank. Shannon, the last girl I had ever really dated, was married with three children and lived in a loft apartment in a converted department store on Gay Street. I listened from the fringes as they laughed about what jerks we’d been as teenagers, about their kids, the election, their favorite television shows.
After the reunion I declined the half-hearted offers of a couch in town or a ride back to my hotel, choosing instead to walk alone down the sidewalks of the gleaming new Knoxville of the future. It was clean and bright and shiny, but all I saw was a deceitful façade that masked the horror that I knew still slept, dreaming, beneath the city.
I walked back to where I had first heard the song of the Nunyunu-wi that night long ago. The Chief wasn’t there, of course. Neither was the wall. The building I had helped hold up, if only for part of a night, was gone. It was a parking garage now.
I put my hand against the new, white concrete and I heard the song again, the call of the eldritch creature dressed in stone beneath Gay Street, and I felt It stir.
Alan Gratz was born and raised in Knoxville, and is a graduate of the University of Tennessee. His third novel, Something Wicked, a contemporary murder mystery based on “Macbeth” and set in the Smoky Mountains, is now available.