SKINWALKER – By Ray O’Bannon

I like the desert at night. They say it’s dangerous to be out here but I like it. It’s good to sit by a campfire and drink a beer, out here where there isn’t any noise or traffic. You can see all the stars because there aren’t any electric lights to chase them away. Sometimes the wind sings to you.

But then somebody usually comes along and messes it up somehow. Mostly it’s drunks who want to beat you up because you’re from the reservation. So when I heard pebbles shifting somewhere off to my left, the hairs on the back of my neck started to tingle and my hand inched a little closer to my bowie knife. The figure that came walking out of the darkness didn’t look very threatening. Just an old man wearing traditional Navajo clothing and leaning on a crooked walking stick as he shuffled quietly towards me.

“Getting cold” came the old mans voice, dry as the desert. I expected him to say more but instead he just sat down across the campfire from me, laying the walking stick casually across his lap. There was something about him that made me uneasy, and my apprehension increased when his hand vanished into a leather pouch that hung from his belt. But he pulled forth only a crumpled pack of cigarettes, holding them slightly towards me. “Smoke?”

“Sure” I replied as my nerves began to relax. When he tossed me the pack, I noticed there were only two cigarettes left inside. I took one and tossed the pack back to him. I held my chrome Zippo towards him but he instead took a wooden match from behind his ear, scraping it against a small grey rock that dangled from a leather cord worn around his neck. The sudden flare of light illuminated his ancient weathered face, and his eyes seemed to sparkle eerily for a moment. Then he sat smoking silently.

“Dangerous out here at night, you know” he spoke softly after a while. “Lots of things come out at night. Even things nobody believes in anymore, they still come around sometimes.”

I smiled a little. “You mean ghosts and goblins?”
“Maybe ghosts” he answered after considering it a moment. “Not goblins, I don’t think. Not even sure what a goblin is. But there are other things too, things like the skinwalkers. You know about them?”

A sudden chill ran the length of my spine as the old man studied me quietly. “Mom used to tell me stories about them when I was little” I mumbled.
“Then you know what can happen” said the old man. “They take the shape of a man, and wear the skin of a man, but they’re really more like an animal underneath. They have powers, too. Folks used to say only a shaman could defeat them.”

He turned his attention to the campfire. His image seemed to ripple behind the waves of heat rising from the flames. Embers danced around him like angry red fairies. “Lots of other things out here too” he continued. “The wendigo, the chupacabra, all sorts of things. They don’t come around much anymore, but sometimes they do.”

Silence settled over us like a damp woolen blanket, the campfire seeming to begrudge us what little heat it was providing. The stars twinkling above seemed suddenly to be laughing silently, sharing some sinister joke among themselves. The thin slice of moon sank behind a lone cloudbank, as though unwilling to witness whatever might transpire. The beast attacked us without warning.

I felt claws sinking into my back as a great weight fell upon me. Then it was gone and I rose to see the old man falling backwards. Whatever was on top of him wasn’t visible, but I could see jagged rips appearing in his clothing, and in his flesh. Then suddenly he was thrusting the walking stick upward and there was a terrible screeching sound. The creature fell backwards into the fire and became visible as it writhed in the flames.

I can’t really describe it. Imagine a pale white maggot taller than a man, its bloated mushy body bristling with claw-like barbs. Something like a mouth at one end, with rows of shark-like teeth lining the inside. A clump of black eyes that seemed completely lifeless as it rose from the fire and again hurled itself towards the old man.

I’m not a hero. My brain was screaming for me to get out of there, to just run, run anywhere, to just get away. But then I heard the old man’s screams, and I saw the empty cigarette pack lying crumpled on the ground, and something inside me stopped shaking and started getting angry instead. I tore away my cloths and then tore away my skin as well, revealing my true form. I was springing towards the ugly monstrosity before I really had time to think about it, which is probably just as well.

As I struggled with the creature, attacking savagely with my own teeth and claws, I caught a glimpse of the old man rising weakly to his feet. His walking stick was beginning to glow faintly, casting an eerie green light upon him as he moved forwards. He plunged the stick deep into the creature’s side. The thing stopped biting at my face and made that deafening screeching sound again, but this time it didn’t stop screeching for a long time. I’m not sure if it died of just went someplace else when it faded from view. I hope it died.
The old man reached down to recover his walking stick from where it had fallen, watching me carefully. It’s difficult for me to speak when I’m in my true form, but I can manage if I concentrate. “What wasssss it?” I managed to ask.
“No idea” he answered with a puzzled frown.

We stood staring at each other for a moment.
“Yoooo gonna neeeed a new shirt” I pronounced quietly, pointing a talon at his torn and ruined clothing.
“That’s nothing” he chuckled. “You’re gonna need a new skin.”
But then his smile faded, his grip tightening on the walking stick as he studied me in the campfire’s flickering light.

“Yoo cannn relax” I lisped. “Shaman skinnnnn won’t work on me.”
His eyes drifted uncertainly to his walking stick. “Still” he said softly. “I’m supposed to try to destroy you.”
“Yep” I hissed. “Same here, old mannnnnn.”
We continued staring uneasily at each other for a moment longer. Then the old man’s smile slowly returned. “Crazy world, ain’t it?”
“Crazzzzy world” I agreed.

As he turned to go I glanced around and saw the shredded remains of my jacket. Snagging it with a claw, I turned back towards the old man shuffling away into the darkness. “Heyyy Pops” I called quietly. Tossing him the fresh pack of cigarettes that had been in my jacket pocket, I think I managed something like a human smile. He nodded thanks and then vanished into the desert night.

I sat back down beside my campfire. A million stars twinkled overhead. They say it's dangerous being out here alone in the desert, but I like it. Sometime the wind sings to you.