Cahokia by Robert Pettus


There weren’t always dragons in the valley. For the last few centuries, they had been merely folk legend; awareness of their previous, mighty existence only creeping subtly into the local psyche upon the unearthing of a new boneyard, which hadn’t happened in as long as Tsula could remember, and he was becoming an old man. He wasn’t yet old enough to cease his hunting, though – he wouldn’t do that until he was physically incapable. Hunting was his life; it provided him a productive escape from the never-ending bustle of Cahokia. 

Tsula crested the low-lying hill, which – though it was small – provided a clear view of the valley below. He held his hand to his eye, shielding his vision from the blinding summer sun. The river, though still nearly a mile wide, had become muddy and stagnant. It hadn’t rained in some time. Tsula scooped a handful of chalky dirty from the ground and tossed it skyward. It fell lifelessly back to its previous home; there was no wind. The air was dry; the trees were brittle. 

Tsula looked down the hill, across the ancient river. Cahokia stood on the opposite bank, its cook fires wafting skyward as if to ignite the hot air; their smoke weaving back and forth as if the ancient, natural calligraphy of the spirit-world. Cahokia’s central mound, a slanting, towering earthen pyramid stretching upward to the clouds, looked to be staring in judgement across the river into Tsula’s soul – the wide, circular eyes of its temple windows expelling magically manufactured cool air, as if from the dark caves of the underworld – as if the temple contained a mine into the abyss. Tsula had no idea what secrets the temple held – not really – he just knew that he disliked Atsila, the head Shaman. No man should wield that much power, and Atsila relished his role; Tsula was sure of that.

Lost in thought, Tsula had briefly forgotten his mission. This was no ordinary hunting trip – he was tracking a dragon. There had been numerous sightings in the preceding moons. The people in Cahokia were at best, on edge; at worst, entirely panicked. The reports hadn’t been in total agreeance, but the general consensus was that this dragon was one of the Yanasi – the only known mammalian dragon. The Yanasi were considered a cousin of the common bison; indeed, they appeared completely similar. The only difference being that they were nearly five times as large, and they held secret within their arms gigantic, flapping bat-wings. They also had oversized, irregular horns, which stretched to over twice the length of the width of the beast’s body. They used these gigantic horns – along with the natural ballast of their belly fat – to balance themselves while flying. They weren’t natural flyers, but they would take to the skies when attacking. The Yanasi would fly high, their forearms unnaturally limber, and then soar crashing to the earth like a missile – the entire time spewing like rain their toxic saliva. There were, according to legend, few creatures as dangerous as the Yanasi. 

Tsula fingered the obsidian arrowhead clutched in his left hand. The thought of confrontation with a Yanasi created within Tsula an intense anxiety – his obsidian arrow quickly dampened with sweat. He continued down the hill in a hurry, to the nearby wood. He needed some cover, a place to collect himself. 

Sitting against the trunk of an elderly sycamore tree – his legs fully extended to stretch his calf muscles – Tsula spotted a fawn with her mother. He remained still – they hadn’t yet noticed him. The doe, sniffing around in the dirt, stood suddenly erect in apparent terror:

“There it is,” thought Tsula, “Took them long enough!”

But it wasn’t Tsula’s scent the mother doe had detected. She darted forward, again sniffing, though this time at the air, and then, gathering the fawn, turned and sprinted frantically from the wood. Intrigued, Tsula – scampering crouched, somehow soundlessly through dried, dead leaves of the forest floor – approached the previous location of the two deer. A horrible, foreign stench invaded his nostrils. Looking forward, he noticed an unnaturally large pile of dung. His anxiety returned; Tsula was shaking. The trees, as if mimicking him, also shook. Tsula, remembering there was no wind today, crouched in horror as he gazed upward toward the forest canopy. The limbs of the trees shook in a creaking, petrifying language. Out from within their cover sprung a massive creature, bellowing its paralyzing, toxic spittle across Tsula’s chest. 

The Yenasi fell with crushing weight atop Tsula – its ancient wings spread wide; their metronomic flapping creating a grating, abhorrent music – expressing with its complex face an almost human anger. Tsula wriggled helplessly. He was stuck. His lungs screamed out from within his cracking ribs. He lost consciousness. 

It was a bright summer day. The air was dry; the earth was powder. Cahokia sat vulnerable across the great river.

Robert Pettus is an English as a Second Language teacher at the University of Cincinnati. Previously, he taught for four years in a combination of rural Thailand and Moscow, Russia. His short stories have been accepted for publication at The Horror Zine, the International Human Rights Art Festival, Allegory Magazine, Litmora, The Horror Tree, LIGHT, JAKE magazine, Horror Sleaze Trash, The Night Shift podcast, Libretto publications, White Cat Publications, Culture Cult, Savage Planets,, White-Enso, Androids and Dragons, Unveiling Nightmares, The Ana, Soft Star, Aphelion, Tall Tale TV, The Corner Bar, Super Present, Red Rose Thorns, Lovecraftiana, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Schlock!, Black Petals, Inscape Literary Journal of Morehead State University, Yellow Mama, Apocalypse-Confidential, Mystery Tribune, Iron-Faerie Publications, Blood Moon Rising, and The Green Shoes Sanctuary, among others. His first novel, titled Abry, was published this spring by Offbeat Reads and will be reissued next spring by Flick-It Books. He lives in Kentucky with his wife, Mary, his daughter, Rowan, and his pet rabbit, Achilles. 

Scroll to Top