Long, long ago, there dwelt in the mountains a terrible ogress, a woman monster, whose food was human livers. She could take on any shape or appearance to suit her purposes. In her true form, she looked very much like an old woman except that her whole body was covered with skin as hard as rock that no weapon could wound or penetrate, and, on her right hand, she had a long, stony finger of bone, much like an awl or spearhead, with which she stabbed everyone to whom she could get near enough. For this attribute, she was called Utlvta, or “Spear-Finger.” Because of her stony skin, she was sometimes called Nunyunuwi, “Stone Dress,” as well. (There was another stone-clothed monster that killed people, but that is a different story.)
Spear-Finger has such powers over stone that she could easily lift and carry immense rocks, and could cement them together by merely striking them against another. To get over the rough country more easily, she undertook the construction of a great rock bridge through the air from Nunyutlugunyi, the Tree Rock on Hiawassee, over to Sangilagi, Whiteside Mountain on the Blue Ridge. It was well started from the top of Tree Rock, when lightning struck it and scattered fragments along the whole ridge, where the pieces can still be seen by those who go there.
Utlunta used to range all over the mountains, the heads of streams, and in the dark passes of Nantahala – always hungry and looking for victims. Her favorite haunt on the Tennessee side was near the gap on the trail where Chilhowee Mountain comes down to the river. Sometimes, an old woman would approach along the trail where the children were picking strawberries or playing near the village, and would say to them coaxingly, “Come, my grandchildren, come to your granny and let granny dress your hair.” When a little girl ran up and laid her head in the old woman’s lap to be petted and combed, the old witch would gently run her fingers through the child’s hair until she went to sleep. She would stab the little one through the heart or back of the neck with the long awl finger which she kept carefully hidden under her robe, and proceed to take out the child’s liver and eat it.
She would sometimes enter a house, taking the appearance of one of the family who happened to have gone out for a short time. Waiting for her chance then, she would stab someone with her long finger and take out their liver. She could stab without being noticed, and often the victim did not know it themselves at the time, for it left no wound and cause no pain. They would continue on with their own affairs until they became so weak and gradually began to decline, always sure to die, because Spear-Finger had taken their liver.
When the Cherokee went out in the fall, according to their custom, to burn the leaves off the mountains in order to get the chestnuts on the ground, they were never safe because the old witch was always on the lookout. As soon as she saw the smoke rise, she knew there were Indians there and tried to sneak up to catch one alone. The Indians tried to keep together as much as possible and were very cautious of allowing any stranger to approach the camp. If one went down to the spring for a drink, they knew if it might be the liver eater that came back and sat with them.
Occasionally, she took her proper form, and once or twice, when far away from the settlements, a solitary hunter had seen an old woman with a queer-looking hand going through the woods singing to herself:
Liver, I eat it. Susasai.
It was a rather pretty song, but it chilled his blood. He knew it was the liver eater, and he hurried silently away, before she might see him.
At last, a great council was held to devise a means to get rid of Utlvta before she could destroy everybody. The people came from all around, and after much talk, it was decided that the best way would be to trap her in a pitfall where all the warriors could attack her at once. So they dug a deep pitfall across the trail and covered it over with earth and grass as if the ground had never been disturbed. Then they kindled a large fire of brush near the trail and hid themselves in the laurels, knowing that she would come as soon as she saw the smoke.
Soon they saw an old woman coming along the trail. She looked like an old woman whom they knew well in the village. Although several of the wiser men wanted to shoot at her, others interfered not wanting to hurt one of their own people. The old woman came slowly along the trail, one hand under her blanket, until she stepped upon the pitfall and tumbled through the brush top into the deep hole below. At once, she showed her true nature – instead of the feeble old woman, there was the terrible Utlvta with her stony skin and sharp awl finger reaching out in every direction for someone to stab.
The hunters rushed out from the thicket and surrounded the pit. Shooting as true and as often they could, their arrows struck the stony mail of the witch, only to be broken and fall useless at her feet while she taunted them and tried to climb out of the pit.
Perched on a tree overhead, Utsugi, the titmouse, began to sing, “Un, un, un…” The hunters thought it was saying, “Unahu” (heart), meaning to aim at the heart of the stone witch. The hunters directed their arrows where the heart should be, but the arrows only glanced off with the flint heads broken. So the hunters caught the Utsugi and cut off its tongue so that ever since, its tongue is short and everyone knows that it’s a liar. When the hunters let it go, it flew straight up into the sky and out of sight, never coming back again. The titmouse we know today is only an image of the other.
The hunters continued the assault until another bird, Tsikilili, the chickadee, flew down from a tree and lighted upon the witch’s right hand. The warriors took this as a sign that they must aim there. They were right, for her heart was on the inside of her hand which she kept doubled in a fist, the same awl hand with which she’d stabbed so many people.
Now Utlvta was frightened in earnest and began to rush furiously at them with her long awl finger and to jump about in the pit to dodge the arrows. At last, a lucky arrow struck just where the awl joined her wrist and she fell down dead.
Ever since, the Tsikilili is known as the truth teller. When a is away on a journey, if this bird comes and perches near the house and chirps it song, his friends know he will soon be safe at home.