The novel opens on a calico cat who has been abandoned by the side of the road. To make matters worse, the cat is very pregnant and a rain storm has opened up. She wandered into the woods, far away from the road where she had been left by her family. The storm grew worse and lightning and thunder compounded its effects. Finally, the cat came upon an old tupelo tree with an abandoned nest at its base. Exhausted, the cat curled up and went to sleep.
The trees in this forest had been there for a long time; some of them for hundreds of years. At the opposite end of the forest from where the cat was sleeping was a loblolly pine that had been split in half by another lightning storm. The tree was located near a creek named Little Sorrowful. The lightning storm that severed the loblolly pine had come twenty-five years ago from the Gulf of Mexico, gaining steam from the Sabine River, which separates Louisiana from Texas. When it struck the thousand-year-old tree, the base remained standing despite losing its upper half.
When the storm struck the tree, it also had another impact deep beneath the earth. In the ground below the loblolly tree was a clay jar that had been buried a thousand years before. Inside of the jar was a mysterious creature that had been asleep for centuries. The lightning’s reverberations loosened the roots of the tree that had formerly held the jar in place. Twenty-five years ago, during that huge storm, the creature began to wake, knowing it would one day make its return.
The next morning, the cat awoke to the sound of a hound baying. The baying came in the form of a song, which told of the hound’s loneliness and captivity. After listening to the lament, she began to follow the sound of the dog’s voice.
The cat followed the song deep into the woods until she arrived at dilapidated, tilting house with an ancient, rusty truck parked outside. The hound dog was chained to the porch; he continued...
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The dog, whose name was Ranger, was surprised by the cat. He had seen others in the woods, but it was his job to scare them off. His chain was twenty feet long and allowed him to keep other animals at a distance. This cat, however, was not afraid of him; in fact, she nuzzled him and licked his ears as if she understood that he had been lonely.
The woods were a swampy and dangerous place in East Texas. There was mud and water everywhere, and the forest was filled with all kinds of snakes; plenty of them were poisonous, but even those that weren’t could still bite. The swamp also had crawdads, bullfrogs and ancient turtles; however, the most fearsome creatures in these swampy marshes were the alligators. The most ferocious alligators came from Bayou Tartine, which was near Little Sorrowful creek. Bayou Tartine had a sister Bayou, Petite Tartine, and the land in between was the most dangerous part of the woods.
The Gar Face was on his boat returning home after a day of hunting. He hunted virtually every living thing in the forest, but most of them provided little challenge or enjoyment for him. The one exception was the alligator; Gar Face liked hunting alligators because they lacked the fear that other animals displayed. On the way home, he thought he saw a giant animal in the distance. By the time he focused, whatever it was had gone underwater, but Gar Face noticed the beast (which he believed was an alligator) seemed to be at least a hundred feet in length. He vowed then and there that he would hunt it.
Ranger tried to warn the cat about Gar Face so she would leave, but she had nowhere else to go. Gar Face’s porch was covered with the pelts of animals he had shot. Ranger remembered one night when he had been hunting with Gar Face. When Ranger sensed something amiss during the hunt, his movement caught Gar Face’s eye and he shot him. Gar Face did not apologize and made the dog limp home. The bullet was still in his...
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Across the forest, the old tree that had been struck by lightning was losing more and more branches. With each lost branch, the creature in the pot beneath the tree stirred more and more. The creature was known as Grandmother, and the entire forest reverberated with her impending arrival.
Grandmother was a creature known as lamia, and she was very, very old; much older than anything else in the forest. She had lived for tens of thousands of years and traveled waterways all over the world. She was a giant Moccasin, and she loved hunting. She hunted bugs, reptiles, small animals and all kinds of other creatures. She used the shade of the trees to hide from her prey. She finally settled in the bayou near the Sabine. The bayou was full of thousands of other snakes, and they all recognized her presence. When she arrived, they all hissed, “Sister.”
The Alligator King was in the Bayou Tartine, floating in the water and waiting for more food. He had already picked off a whole community of turtles, but was still hungry. In fact, the Alligator King was always hungry. Even though he subsisted mostly on fish and other water creatures, his favorite food lived on the land; to him, they tasted much better.
In the Underneath of Gar Face’s house, the kittens began to grow and it occurred to Ranger that they should name them. The boy and the girl had been almost identical when they were born, except for the boy’s crescent-moon birthmark; however, now the boy’s coat was darker. Ranger suggested they name the girl Sabine, after the river, and the calico thought it was a beautiful name. For the boy, he suggested Possum because of his dark coat, and Sabine laughed and laughed. The calico finally settled on Puck, which he liked much better.
The trees of the forest had their own language and soon announced the names of the new kittens: Puck and Sabine. The news carried throughout the forest, eventually arriving at the broken-down pine with the Grandmother’s jar beneath it. Grandmother Moccasin heard the names and was particularly interested in Sabine. Grandmother had once had a daughter of her own who was taken from her while she was sleeping. She still craved revenge.
Puck and Sabine knew to stay in the Underneath at all times, even though they had never seen Gar Face; to them, he was just a serious of noises from the floorboards overhead. Gar Face didn’t always feed Ranger, but when he did, Ranger shared his food with the calico. She would in turn feed Sabine and Puck. When Gar Face didn’t feed him, the calico went out into the forest and hunted small animals. Ranger envied her freedom. He had been chained up for so long, he wondered if he would even still be able to hunt.
The trees remembered everything from their long history, and the loblolly pine (what was left of it) could recall all the different animals it had housed over the years. Even now, when its branches had mostly fallen and insects had rendered it soft, it still housed something.
Grandmother moccasin was an enchanted creature, a lamia. She was half human and half snake, and she had been around for thousands of years. She had been a companion of the Alligator King, and they called each other Sister and Brother. They used to hunt for each other and share their prey. Still, Grandmother longed for one of her own kind. Many, many years ago, she had shed her reptile skin and become human. She had fallen deeply in love with a man who later betrayed her and had an affair. Angry and disillusioned, she turned back into snake, even though she knew that once a lamia returned to its animal form, it could never again be human. Since then, she swam around the world with her fellow serpents. She also remembered a man with copper-colored feathers in his hair who had stolen her daughter many years ago. She would soon have revenge.
Twenty-five years ago, when Gar Face first entered the woods, he had walked a long way—all the way from Houston. He was starving, exhausted and angry. He drank swamp water, and nibbled on grass and bugs, but it wasn’t enough. He had wasted bullets trying to hunt, but he wasn’t a good enough shot. Eventually, he came across a deer and shot it. The deer took off through the woods and Gar Face ran after it, knowing he would starve to death if he did not eat this deer. After much chasing, Gar Face tripped and fell. He heard a sound of breathing and saw the deer on its side nearby. With his knife, he killed the deer so he could have it for food. Underground nearby, Grandmother stirred.
The kittens grew and could no longer feed on just the calico’s milk. Now, in addition to hunting for herself, the calico also...
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Grandmother did not know where she or her daughter came from, only that they had descended from other enchanted creatures like mermaids, minotaurs, and ondines. Grandmother named her daughter Night Song because of her beautiful voice. This gift was rare for snakes, but since lamia were connected to creatures like Sirens, Night Song’s voice was spellbinding. Her voice filled the forest and all of the trees. Now, rattling around in her clay jar, Grandmother longed to break free. In the present day, the Alligator King didn’t know where Grandmother was, but he was sure she would soon return.
The woods were so deep and remote that few humans were familiar with them. A few trappers knew their layout, as did Gar Face who...
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One morning, Puck awoke while the other three—Sabine, Ranger, and his mother—slept on. From the Underneath, he could see the Open and, like all kittens, he was curious. He went to the edge of the Underneath and looked out; the Open didn’t seem so scary despite Ranger and his mother’s constant warnings. After checking to see if Sabine would join him (she remained asleep), Puck ran out of the Underneath into the open. The sun felt great and he rolled around happily on the ground. He was about to run back to the Underneath to tell Sabine when he ran right into Gar Face.
The calico awoke and immediately knew something was wrong. She heard Puck cry and ran to the edge of the Underneath in time to see Gar Face pick up...
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Years ago, an ancient Native American people named the Caddo had lived in this area. They had a village near Little Sorrowful Creek by the now-crumbling loblolly pine. They learned the animals and plants of the area, and made a life for themselves. The trees and other wildlife could still remember them. Little Sorrowful sprang from a deep well. At this moment, Puck sat by the waterside weeping. He looked back at the water and only saw a hummingbird hovering over the place where they had been thrown to the ocean floor.
Back at Gar Face’s house, Ranger waited anxiously. His neck hurt from straining against the chain. He had also barked himself hoarse. When Gar Face returned, he pulled Ranger out from the Underneath by...
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Night Song’s lullaby was full of happiness, because as she grew, she and Grandmother made each other very happy. Grandmother entertained Night Song with tales of her travels around the world, which Night Song found exciting. Grandmother was careful not to tell her the story of her love who left her for another. As Night Song grew, however, she started to become restless. Grandmother’s stories still entertained her, but they made her want to go out into the world for adventures of her own. During Grandmother’s nap, she started to sneak away to explore the forest on her own. It was during one of these secret trips that she ran into the Hawk Man. Thinking back on it a thousand years later, Grandmother thought of it as one more...
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Puck was miserable. He was still thinking about his mother and he had not eaten in a day. His fur was matted with mud and he was starving. He also knew that he had to fulfill his promise to his mother to look after Ranger and Sabine, but his appetite was all he could think about right now. He tried to clean himself up, but only succeed in pulling clumps of his fur out. He cried, and his crying led to hiccups; these hiccups would make it difficult to hunt for prey because good hunting was about keeping quiet. He wished he had paid closer attention when his mother was teaching him and Sabine how to hunt.
When Hawk Man and Night Song became human, they were unsure of what to do. Human life and human bodies were new to...
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Recalling his mother’s warnings to stay in the Underneath, Puck remained secluded in his makeshift den at the base of the tree. He saw the warm sunlight, but worried it was dangerous—the last time he went into the sunlight, Gar Face captured him. The problem was, Puck was very hungry and could not wait until dark to eat. He was angry and found himself hissing “Ssssst” in anger; he wasn’t sure where the angry sound had come from. In addition, he knew he had to get to work on his promise to find Sabine and rescue Ranger. Reluctantly, he crept outside and looked at Little Sorrowful creek. Somehow, he seemed to know that the water was the key to finding them. Under the ground, Grandmother roiled again.
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As Sabine slept, Ranger longed to go hunt. He came from a long line of expert hound dogs and he had hunted well with Gar Face, even helping him catch a bear. The only time Ranger had failed at his hounding was the day Gar Face had shot him for letting the bobcat go. Ranger had the Bobcat cornered, but paused because he realized she was carrying kittens; the bobcat got away, Gar Face shot Ranger’s leg and chained him to the house. Ranger had never been the same, and now he longed for the calico and young Puck.
Ranger had gotten shot because he stepped between Gar Face and the bobcat. As it escaped, the bobcat slashed Gar Face’s leg. Gar Face chained up Ranger because the bobcat incident had reinforced something Gar...
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Puck began to think of the dying tree as his and the tree felt the same way in return. The tree knew that Puck needed to cross the stream, but Puck did not hear the language of the trees. He did not know they warned him about the Bayou Tartine and the Petite Tartine. All he could think about was that needed to get to Sabine and Ranger.
The trees had also tried to warn the Hawk Man long ago. He had awoken to find his wife gone and went to search for her by the water. He walked up and down the banks and even waded into the water. He could not believe she would venture across to the Bayou territory, which was full of dangers; its quicksands had once swallowed a whole bison. Night Song cried out, but Hawk Man could not...
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Later that evening, Hawk Man’s daughter waited until he fell asleep. Then, she took her giant jar to the edge of the water and followed her mother’s footsteps into the cold, fast-moving water. She turned on her back and allowed the strong current to carry her to the other side. The trees tried to warn her, but she could not hear them; she believed her Grandmother could help her.
Gar Face was becoming more and more fixated on the Alligator King. He trolled the waters hoping for a sign of him, but was only fleetingly greeted by bubbles from the great beast. Gar Face knew the creature was playing a game with him. He bitterly reflected how the other patrons of the bar had shunned him and laughed at him. He knew that...
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Hawk Man’s daughter had floated further down the creek by the time she got to the other side. The land looked and felt different to her from the side where her village was. She concentrated on remembering what her mother had told her about finding Grandmother Moccasin. She needed to go deep into the woods until her footsteps had puddles in them; when she reached the cypresses, she would find Grandmother Moccasin.
A thousand years later, Puck also looked at the foreign land across the river. He knew that he would have to find a way across soon; he was running out of time.
Grandmother became enraged after Night Song disappeared. She hunted mercilessly in a cloud of anger and hatred. She hated Hawk Man and...
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The taunting of the Alligator King began to eat away at Gar Face. He would sit on his pirogue drinking vodka and waiting for the beast that he knew was laughing at him. One night, he felt something bump at the bottom of the boat and knew it was the Alligator King. As the boat lurched, Gar Face lost his staff and had no way to guide his boat back to land. He knew if he stepped in the water, the Alligator would attack. The boat began to lurch and spin with more bumping from underneath. Eventually, it bumped up against the shore. Dizzy from the spinning and the drink, Gar Face staggered onto the land and passed out in the sand.
Sabine and Ranger knew something was wrong when Gar Face didn’t return the next morning. As...
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The young girl, the daughter of Hawk Man and Night Song, wandered hopelessly through the forest. She grew weary, but tried to listen to the sounds of the forest. Through means she could not explain, she knew that she would never see her mother again. Soon, she was surrounded by birds, flapping their wings and speaking to her. Feathers began to sprout all over her body and she soared up into the sky as a bird. Grandmother remained alone in her jar.
Gar Face now knew about Sabine and he peered out his window and saw her run into the woods to hunt. His skin still burned from the sun and the mosquito bites, but inwardly his biggest pain was knowing the Alligator King was still out there, waiting. Gar Face vowed to stay off...
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The gunshot had startled Puck, and he fell from the branch. He struck several other limbs on his way down and landed with a thud on the red muddy shore. The wind was completely knocked out of him and he ached all over. He knew he had not yet fulfilled his promise to his mother and her voice echoed in his head. Wracked with pain, he fainted on the shore.
Sabine’s attempts to hunt had yielded little. She brought home a solitary lizard for Ranger with her stomach still growling. The rain had started, and most of the animals had sought shelter. At the bar, Gar Face listened to the men talk, hoping to hear a story of an alligator. He did not notice the rain that began pounding; he could only think of his abandoned birth...
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When Gar Face grabbed Sabine, he had also caught Ranger off guard. When Ranger realized what was happening, he snarled at Gar Face. The man was caught by surprise and as he turned toward Ranger, the dog jumped on him. Gar Face dropped Sabine, who ran and hid in the bushes. Ranger bit Gar Face in the leg; the man swore and ran inside. Ranger lifted up his head and let loose a series of howls.
Beside the creek, Puck had started to recover. He saw the tide rising and felt hopeless about getting across the water. Suddenly, he heard a strange sound in the distance. He realized that it was Ranger, whose voice he had been waiting for. It came from across the river, as Puck had suspected. He knew he had to find a way to get to...
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Puck wasn’t sure about crossing. The creek was wild and dangerous with fast-moving rapids and swirling eddies. He made his way slowly across the fallen tree. Every voice in his head told him to go back, but he knew he had to go forward. The tree moved and swerved; Puck just made it across the water when the tree split apart and fell into the watery rapids.
Puck hadn’t been that far from Gar Face’s tilted house: just a little over two miles. He traveled in the direction Ranger’s cries had come from. When he arrived at the house, he stayed hidden in the bushes at first. Stealthily, he snuck across the yard into the Underneath. He called for Sabine, but there was no answer. Back in the yard, Puck found blood. It...
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In the water, Gar Face’s hand released Puck, who suddenly heard his mother’s voice again, urging him to swim. He then heard Sabine’s voice from the shore saying the same thing, so he swam to the surface.
Puck came ashore, and he and Sabine embraced each other. They ran up to Ranger, and an exhausted Puck nestled under one of Ranger’s ears and began to doze off. As he did, he heard Ranger’s chain rattle.
The forest wanted to protect the cats and Ranger, all of whom fell asleep from exhaustion. To protect them, the forest once again used its old magic to make everything in the Bayou forest sleep, including Grandmother Moccasin.
In the morning, Sabine and Puck awoke and began to care for...
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