Knobs don’t normally have names, like mountains do. Down in my friend Auntie’s little corner of ‘em, though, just outside Etowah, there’s one called, simply, The Wildcat. In the old days, before wildcats were hunted nearly to extinction in this area, they used a cave on the knob for a place to hide out during the day, and hunted from there at night. People would hear them scream, that ghastly scream like a woman in terror, and gradually the knob acquired that identifying name. Auntie says, in fact, that she believes big cats still come there; she heard a cat shriek, deep in the night, not long ago, from that direction.
One morning last October, though, she heard some entirely different noises, and they reminded her of an old, old story that she was told when she was a young girl. She doesn’t know if the story was made up to account for natural phenomena, or if it has a basis in fact, but it’s been handed down through one branch of her family for more than a century—possibly closer on to two.
Auntie was up early that morning, waking to a windy, cloudy, rainy day. She had her newly adopted kitty to feed, and errands to run, and she was startled out of her business by sounds like footsteps on her porch, and then sounds of knocking. But there was no one there. . .
She then heard something else that chilled her to the bone—a moaning sound. She thought perhaps it was the wind moaning in the chimney, or around the corners of the house, as it does when it blows from one particular direction—the direction of The Wildcat—until, with the moaning, she heard a sound no one could mistake—like a woman sobbing. When she went outside to feed Miss Kitty, she could still hear the moaning and crying. It came from the woods across the road. The Wildcat is beyond those woods. That was when she knew the sounds were not the wind moaning around her house and chimney.
That was when she remembered the story of the cries and moans that come from The Wildcat, that follow the phantom footsteps and knocks, long about October.
One branch of Auntie’s family, the Elliots—to whom we refer affectionately as “them crazy Elliots” for some of the wild and woolly scrapes they got into—, along with a few intrepid neighbors, moved into what is now McMinn County long before it was organized as a county in 1819. White people were not, technically, supposed to settle in the area, which was still regarded as Cherokee territory at the time. But the Elliots had married into the Cherokee, and settled near their relatives.
The ones who passed the story down didn’t recollect the exact year; only that it was in October that the neighbor woman went missing. The story goes that she stepped out to fetch water and was last seen heading toward The Wildcat. Nobody understood why she would be going there. Sure, there was a great spring of water on the knob, fresh sweet water, but there were equally good springs much closer. Still, no one stopped her. No one asked questions, until she failed to return home.
The Elliots and the neighbors went out searching for her. They searched for weeks, and found not a trace of her. Eventually, with winter coming on, the search was abandoned.
A year passed, and in October, at the anniversary of the woman’s disappearance, they first heard the footsteps. . .and the knocking. . .and the moaning that turned to crying. . .and, like Auntie, found it was coming from the woods, in the direction of The Wildcat. Again they went out onto the knob to search: the woods, the spring, even the cave where the wildcats came. Again, they found no trace of her. They noticed that the sounds got stronger as they got near the top of The Wildcat, but died out as they closed in on what they thought was their source. The search was abandoned again.
This happened, every October, thereafter. They searched for several years, when the sounds came, but finally, in frustration, gave up the search altogether.
And last October, the sounds came again, this time to Auntie, a descendant of the Elliots who first searched for the woman, so long ago.
Auntie wonders if that poor woman, lost for nearly two centuries now, has tried to make it home again, has tried to get someone’s attention with the footsteps, the knocking, the moaning and crying. She wonders if there might be a way to send the poor soul on her way—
But that would necessitate yet another search of The Wildcat. Auntie’s old now, and the Elliots who could have guided her over the knob are all long in their graves.
She’ll wait, and listen, for more Octobers to come.