01 Feb Tell Me What You Saw
Out of anonymity, his name will be withheld. What I will disclose, however, was his appearance: his disheveled hair still dripping with lake water, his sodden clothes streaked with dirt and algae, one bruised and bloody leg without a shoe. I’d looked up from the helpdesk when the door rattled to life, the stringed bells jangling above the guest’s head. He was weary, his steps laborious and heavy, and his face was struck with such an utter exhaustion I assumed that fainting was a near possibility. His path left small rivulets of water from the entrance to my desk. He just stood there, eyes unsure, a dark vacancy instilled in his own thoughts, not making eye contact for the longest time. I spoke first.
“Took a tumble into the lake, I see. How can I help you?”
Water ran from his hair and down his chin but a closer inspection revealed it was indeed mixing with flowing tears.
“Sir, what happened? Are you alright?”
“There’s something in the lake.”
Later, we were both sitting in the back break room of the information center: the main clubhouse for visitor information, lake news, fishing forecasts, and a post for the local park rangers. The dispirited guest had a towel I gave him wrapped around his wet clothes and clutched in his pruney fingers like an expensive diamond was a warm cup of coffee from the pot I’d made when starting my shift.
I pulled my chair up next to him and got comfortable. He stared blankly ahead, not following my movement or giving any attention to the chatter of other guests in the lobby next door being assistant by my manager who was helping out while I dealt with my damp company. I lifted my clipboard and pressed the pen to paper, ready to fill out the lines next to “report summary” and call the park rangers, or police, if necessary. He sipped a few times then finally met my gaze.
“When you’re ready,” I said.
“I planned to spend the weekend, here, at the national park fishing, kayaking, reading. I took the day off from work and left early this morning. I drove a few hours to get here and on the way I made reservations for a wooded lot in Campground C.”
“Primitive camping site, correct?”
“Yeah. I arrived, set up my tent-”
“Was anyone else with you?”
“No, just me. Time for self-reflection, ya know? Anyways, I picked this weekend because it contained no holidays, so when my assumptions of a scant crowd were proved correct, I was overjoyed. After driving through the looped roadways I found my site and pitched my tent in the wooded lot I reserved. This was early this morning, right before dawn. There wasn’t a single other tent in my view. The solitude was just what I wanted.”
I scribbled a few notes. “Go on.”
“I fetched my provisions – some food, water, matches, fishing pole, tacklebox, a couple of novels – you know, just basic camping necessities, and tossed them into my tent then lowered my kayak from its rack and positioned it away from the fire pit. By then, the sun, red and glorious, started to edge over the horizon. The lake at that time was free of any frolicing children, noisy with play or tantrums, or boaters speeding up and down the way, heedlessly spreading turbulence with their wakes. It was calm and beautiful. Serene. I’d eaten about an hour before I arrived so I wasn’t hungry. But I was antsy. Eager to enjoy the breathtaking view, I zipped my phone, keys and wallet into my waterproof fieldbox and locked them inside the kayak’s storage cavity. The waterline was so close to my campsite I was able to slip my kayak down a shallow embankment and onto the shore where I maneuvered inside and pushed off the embankment with my paddle. Away I went, floating into the lake where the pinks and blues of the sky were melting into the water like a dreamlike abyss.”
“It was. I paddled straight away from my camp for about ten minutes in a slow scull but veered into a narrow stretch to buffer the wind. More of an inlet I guess. Overhead, a skein of ducks coasted by, mere silhouettes against the warming vibrant sky, and across the way was a young fawn drinking from the lake – with its mother nearby no doubt. It was exactly what I wanted: a relaxing, beautiful escape to nature.”
“But?” I asked in a peeved tone.
“But something happened. I guided my kayak in a cove across the lake. And there I spotted a small trail. After sliding my boat up the gumbo shoreline, I followed the path. The trees were turning that murky blue color as the sun swelled through the horizon. However, it was still fairly dark and I didn’t want to get lost so I made a quick loop to where I saw the fawn, in the hopes I would see mother and baby.”
“Did you find them?”
“I found the fawn. Yes.” The man took a long slurp of his coffee.
“It was dead.”
“You said you saw it drinking from the lake, correct?”
“Yeah, moments earlier it was drinking from the lake. As I rounded a bend in the trail, the trees thinned out and through them I could see the glistening onsets of sunlight catching in the lake. The trees at that point were practically silhouettes, still absent of detail unless viewed up close, but when I entered the clearing I could see the spotted body of the fawn twisting and convulsing.”
“That’s what I thought at first. I thought, oh, I didn’t know deer could get epilepsy. Still, I trekked on toward the dun, writhing animal I had seen moments before. And, there was. . . was. . .”
“Yeah. Yeah, fine, just give me a second.” He finished his coffee and brushed his lips with the back of his wrist. He pulled the towel in closer, tighter, then cleared his throat.
“There was something there, consuming it. The fawn twitched and bleated softly until it stopped altogether, lifeless. I could hear the chunks of flesh being torn and swallowed, the crunch of bone, the rip of ligaments. The smell of blood. The faintest sigh came out of my mouth and the feast halted. Two eyes, glittering and mad, rose above the carcass and kept rising until it was parallel, or perhaps taller than my head. In the gloomy dawn, the features resembled a man to some degree but it’s skin was – for lack of a better word – rubbery. It looked smooth and unblemished but a thin layer of slime covered it, even dripping off as it stepped over its interrupted meal toward me. Disquieting clicks and gurgles poured from behind a row of teeth, fanglike and angled, that were covered by a red beard of the fawn’s blood that dripped from its mouth and chin.”
“You said it took a step toward you, correct?”
“What did you do next?”
A tear escaped but was quickly mopped up. “I ran.”
“I sprinted back through the trail. Only, in the departing darkness, the light of my canopy shaded area was too limited for my vision and made my navigation difficult. Regardless, I ran as quickly as I could, tripping over the occasional root or stick, but I managed to find my kayak and slip away into the water.”
“This is a, well, a sensational story-”
“I’m not finished. I thought I was safe. I paddled away from the shoreline, putting as much distance between me and that creature as possible but as I paddled I saw it lurking towards me in the shallows, those eyes still glittering and mad, and then, with a weak splash, they disappeared underwater. I’ve never paddled so ferociously in my life. My fingers tingled with fear, nervousness stunted my muscle memory. My form was terrible but what I lacked in structure was shored up by sheer will. I was making good time – great time actually – and when I was over halfway across the lake my fears began to subside. Then my kayak capsized.”
“What did you do?”
“I panicked. I floundered around at first, kicking and splashing and screaming. Instead of trying to roll my kayak, I clutched tightly to my floating paddle and kicked toward the shore. The water was displaying the muted sky in undulating reflections so everything was well lit by then. I could even see my campsite. Kicking furiously toward my goal was strenuous and I grew winded in no time. That’s when I felt it. A tug. A rubbery, clawed hand took hold of my ankle and pulled me down with speed and strength I’ve only seen in carnivorous animals. I sank into the depths of inky water, ten, maybe twenty feet, before I realized the paddle was still clutched firmly in my hand. I used the paddle to strike and leverage the claws from my ankle and resurfaced, coughing and striving for oxygen. After regaining my breath, I finished my swim, collapsing on the shore and vomiting water I didn’t realize I’d swallowed.”
I sighed briefly. “Sometimes after a traumatic event people have hallucinations or imagine that they saw-”
“This was no hallucination,” he screamed, plopping his leg on the table top to reveal a set of long bloody gashes on his ankle.
“Yes, sir. I understand. We’ll get a crew out there as soon as possible. If what you say is true-”
“What I said IS true!”
“Of course, of course. Sir, thank you for your report. We’ll do everything we can to make this property as safe as possible. We have some specialists that deal with violent and troublesome wildlife.”
“Did you hear what I said? This is no ordinary animal. They’ll need weapons. Tasers. Guns. Grenades!”
“Something with more firepower than an oar?”
He became stoic, irritated at my attempt at humor.
“I’ve got all I need, sir. Thank you.”
As he hobbled to his car, which was already packed with his tent and belongings in a slipshod manner, he took to his phone and began calling someone. Police? Probably not. Friends? Perhaps. Family? More than likely. I slipped the hand written report into a folder and carried it over to the multitude of filing cabinets against the wall that resembled a bulky city landscape. I pulled open a drawer marked “Miscellaneous” and depressed the folders inside with one hand then released the lever with the other. A hidden panel at the bottom of the drawer released. I dropped the report folder with the others. My manager entered.
“Yes, sir,” I answered. “This one actually had scratches on his ankle.”
“No wonder that man looked so shook.”
“He was more irritated than ill. I thought when they get scratched-”
“It’ll take weeks. The dreams’ll come, his senses’ll heighten. His sweat’ll get viscous. Start cravin’ raw meat. And he’ll get a callin’ for the lake. Just like all the others did. Slowly but surely, they always find their way back. Some kind of instinct. But don’t worry, the specialists keep track of the population. They make sure it doesn’t get out of hand.”
“Still, I feel bad for the guy.”
“Oh well, it happens every once in a while. Out with the old and in with the new. Anyhow, want some more coffee? I’m thinkin’ of makin’ another pot.