Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Hougarhide

Hougarhide: (noun) sounds like cougar-hide;
                   A poly-cephalic  heavily built, bipedal, short-legged mammal thought to be of the weasel family. Similar to to the Wolverine or Gulo-Gulo in appearance but stands upright on its hind legs. Because they are elusive and horrifically ill tempered not much is known about the species.  The scant amount of data on the creature has been collected and maintained mostly by grandmothers in Northern Minnesota and passed on via oral tradition to young children who attempt to play near a river or other dangerous location. A vicious and solitary creature, the hougarhide will immediately attack any child who strays too close to its lair and immediately begin chewing on the child's legs and feet with its shiny white chomping teeth.

At least that's what my grandmother told me when I was a boy.

Actually she didn't tell me directly. My cousins and I were "allowed" to overhear a conversation between our grandma Selma and our aunts. It happened after we were scolded and told to go inside the house after fiddling around with an old boat. You see, a few of us had snuck our way toward the edge of Lawrence Lake. A forbidden place! Our fathers were were in a boat fishing on the other side. We could see them from where we were and there is nothing more distressing to a group of cousins than to be stuck on shore while your fathers go fishing. So, like the Borg Collective, we decided to launch grandpa Walts very old, very leaky and very un-seaworthy old rowboat. We thought nothing of it but obviously our mothers were unhappy with the idea of five to ten year old children launching a guaranteed deathtrap into a deep glacial lake. So once we were rounded up and safely inside the house, we overheard the following conversation.

"Mom, do you remember the hougarhide?"

"Oh Violet, don't talk about that thing!" grandma exclaimed. "I had to beat it with a stick to get it off of you."

"Who else did the hougarhide get? Didn't Janet and Weldie get bit too?" my mother chimed in.

Grandma continued, "Oh it really hurt Weldie. His little legs were so torn up. I was lucky that I heard him scream when it got him."

"What did you do?" said a voice.

"Well I grabbed the biggest stick I could find. When I got to Weldie I had to hold on to him and try to pull him away from those chomping teeth and beat it on its heads as hard as I could! But as soon as one head would stop biting his legs then the other one would start! Oh, he screamed and screamed and I was crying. It even bit me a few times. Uff-da! I don't wana talk about it anymore."

"Yup, that's why we never went by the river or the lake when we were little. Does the hougarhide still live there?" aunt Barb asked.

Grandma replied, "Oh I think Norman saw one of its dens not long ago. See, they have to make their dens deeper in the woods because the river floods. Once a it finds a good spot it digs a den then it tears up all the little trees and rips up the ground so everything in front of its den is wrecked."

"Well, I just hope none of the kids get hurt by that thing. Do you think we should tell them about it or do you think they will listen well enough and keep away from where they aren't supposed to go?" aunt Violet asked.

"Oh I don't think we should scare them. They are good kids. They listen pretty well." grandma finished.

We were, all of us cousins, playing in the living room when we heard the conversation. You can just imagine the black hole of silence created by a group of cousins, frozen in place, straining to hear every word in the next room.
Our little minds were racing. Two heads? Hougar-what? Chewing on legs and feet and beating it with clubs? And what in the world could be so bad that it made grandma cry? Adults never cry unless there is a funeral. Did she think Uncle Weldie was gonna die? This was serious and we just had to learn more. The combination of fear and curiosity spurred by the conversation overcame us. All at once we broke free from the spell and for whatever our individual reasons, we had to be near an adult at that very moment. A gaggle of cousins poured into the dinning room where the women were enjoying their coffee.

Once we were located skin tight to our preferred adult a little voice broke the silence.

"Um, what's a Hool-gra, a Hoor-a-guide?"

"Oh no. You kids didn't hear that did you?" aunt Barb exclaimed in shock. Her change in posture and frightened look made each of us feel as if the damn thing was standing right behind us ready to pounce. The younger cousins clamped their eyes shut and buried their faces in a mother or aunt and the older ones, myself included, nearly jumped on the table. You couldn't fit a razor blade in the space between woman and child.

"I think we should tell them about it Joyce." Aunt Janet looked at my mother and continued. "They might as well learn about it so they don't get hurt."

"I'm not telling them. You tell them. If they can't stay away from the places they aren't supposed to go then they'll find out one way or another." my mom replied.

What in the name of all that was good a right was my mother talking about? This was the very same woman who won't let me ride my bike to the end of the driveway. Heck, I can't even take a rope into the woods because I might, "get hung up by your neck!" And now, this very same woman was willing to loose one or more of us to this two headed horror by attrition. My little mind reeled.

Over the next few moments and strategically placed pauses for sips of coffee, the aunts took turns explaining the hougarhide, its habits  and terrifyingly vicious nature. Young cousins whimpered or covered their ears during the scariest parts and I noticed that even the oldest of us had now wrapped both arms securely around our preferred adult.

Those women were brilliant, wicked, and wise. I'm sure they fully enjoyed the hugs and unsolicited cuddles they were getting. Plus the rapt attention and quiet must have been a great bonus.

In time, the conversation turned to things only adults cared about and we began to relax. By then, we started climbing off laps and releasing our death grips and drifted back into various parts of the house. Slowly, the afternoon returned to normal. We chased each other, hid in closets, tried to sneak into the basement or got caught fiddling with the wood stove. It was at that point that we heard the dreaded words, "All right! You kids better get outside right now or there is going to be trouble."

I think I would have preferred an arrow in the knee at that moment. How in the heck did these women expect us to go outside when clearly there was an actual monster at large? What is more, Minnesota is the "Land of Ten Thousand Lakes" and that doesn't include rivers. I was old enough to do some simple math and it occurred to me as I stood wiping ashes from the wood stove onto my pants that the entire state was likely crawling with hougarhide's! Everywhere we looked, everywhere we drove, there was a lake or river or swamp or other equally dangerous location. But the women didn't care. One by one we were reluctantly shooed out the door.

Once in the yard the door thumped shut behind us. I turned and looked for my brother. I didn't have to look far, he was holding my hand. "Mark, we better play in the driveway cause its prolly safer then by the woods." I said.

Mark didn't respond but plopped himself down in the grass by the front door. The rest of us followed suit. And from that day on we were the most cautious children north of the equator.

In time, some of us grew up and had nervous episodes each time we got near water but for the most part, we went on to become healthy adults with our own families. And you can bet, that with each new batch of kids, comes another retelling of the story of the hougarhide. 

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