Feb. 22, 2021

Episode 5: THE GREAT BLACK SWAMP

Episode 5: THE GREAT BLACK SWAMP

Conway receives a water-logged manuscript from a midwestern monster hunter of questionable character.

(CWs: mild drug use--cannabis, fire, death)


Conway receives a water-logged manuscript from a midwestern monster hunter of questionable character. 

(CWs: mild drug use--cannabis, fire, death)

TRANSCRIPT: 

CONWAY: This is Conway, receiving clerk for the Dead Letter Office of ***** Ohio, processing the national dead mail backlog. The following audio recording will serve as an internal memo strictly for archival purposes and should be considered confidential. Need I remind anyone: public release of this or any confidential material from the DLO is a felony. Some names and places have been censored for the protection of the public. 

Dead Letter 10609, a manuscript for some kook’s autobiography or memoir, sent to a less than reputable publishing company that shut its doors years back. It was flagged for inspection before it could be delivered due to some unknown fluid leaking from the package. Inside the package was the previously mention manuscript and a broken test tube. The most pertinent excerpts from what remains of the water-logged manuscript read as follows. 

NARRATOR: It started, as so many terrible things do, in rural Ohio. You drive out deep into the flat midwest farmland, past the intersection of McCutcheon and 199, down narrow roads covered in gravel and framed by a split sea of cornstalks. You take the turn onto Holcomb road, and one way or another you’ll eventually hit Holcomb Woods--regardless of which way you’re going. Holcomb road cuts a straight line through the foliage. You can see one end from the other, given clear enough conditions.

Every kid in the area’s heard of Holcomb woods. The legend varies from school to school, vivid details emerging when the tale’s in the hands of a particularly clever storyteller, but some commonalities emerge: a vehicle, an accident, a tree, and some ghostly headlights. Some say it was a bus full of kids and a mad driver, others whisper of intoxicated teens. No matter the details, the story ends with a warning--or dare, depending on who is listening--drive down Holcomb road at night and you’ll come upon the passage through the dense trees. Before you pass under the arced branches, you’ll see a pair of headlights coming at you from the opposite direction. You can try to swerve out of the way, but they’ll pass right through you, then disappear. Some say you can still see the driver’s face in one of the trunks if the moon’s angle is just right. 

Growing up, I wanted to work with animals. I was fascinated with animal behavior, with their taxonomies and eccentricities. I planned to go to the nearby state university after high school, study biology, zoology, whatever it took to get my dream job. That was until three friends and I took a trip down Holcomb road.

It was the final day of our last summer break before graduation. We were bumping along the rough country roads in an old Buick, blaring the kind of music specifically designed to make our parents wince. We slowed down when we saw the woods ahead, the black void in the center of the trees inviting us in. Of course, we’d all heard the stories before, each of us with our own personal vision of the fateful event that we would passionately defend. We stopped at the very edge of the trees and shut off the engine. Mosquitos tapped at the windows in the humid air. The only sign of our presence that remained was the gentle clinking of empty beer bottles rattling around in the backseat. We sat and waited. Somebody cracked wise about a ghost driver needing a ghost license. We were haughty and skeptical in the headstrong way that only teenagers--so sure of their own immortality--can be. 

The driver was getting impatient, eager to return the rusty sedan to his parents before midnight and get inside in the central air. He reached for the keys, fixed to run the engine again, when two points of bright light emerged from the other end of the woods. We all went quiet, transfixed by the glow. The two points were close together, and smaller than headlights. They drew closer at a startling pace. The driver fumbled with the keys while the rest of us shouted at him to get it together. The keys hit the floor with a pathetic clink and we fell silent again.

The lights were right in front of us now, standing about seven feet in the air. Each was about the size of a baseball, casting an eerie pall across our stunned faces. These lights were attached to something bigger: they looked like the eyes of some strange creature. The hulking beast stood on two thin legs, leading up to a wide body covered in dense fur. It took a step toward the driver-side window and tilted its oblong face. Two long feathery tendrils twitched atop its head. A hooked claw tapped at the door.

I made eye contact with this thing from the passenger seat and felt a deep churn in my gut. Dread crept through my body. I could see every anxiety, every worst case scenario I’d ever imagined, play out in my head at once. The others burst into action simultaneously, all scrambling and reaching to find the keys under the seat. This entity seemed unsettled by our sudden movement and stepped back on its spindly legs. A huge pair of powdery wings spread out behind it. It flapped several times, then took off over the pale moonlit trees and disappeared. The driver snatched the keys from below the seat and we sped home.

After what felt like a century of silence, somebody in the back made a joke about the fuzzy bird man, assuring ourselves that it was probably just an eagle or local crackpot in a costume. I didn’t say anything the whole way. I was replaying the horrible visions in my head over and over. Classes would start next week, our last year of mandatory schooling before we all went our own ways in the adult world. That Wednesday, the high school caught fire, taking the lives of the driver, the two passengers in the backseat, and several other students and teachers.

From that moment, my interest in zoology vanished, and I became deeply fascinated by cryptozoology.

I’ve been all over this great state searching for signs of the paranormal and the cryptozoological. I’ve taken a dive in Lake Erie looking for Bessie, the South Bay monster. Didn’t find much there apart from some sunken boats, a lot of trees, and a weird skeleton with a human skull and fish tail. I’ve journeyed into forests and nature preserves for sightings of the grassman, also known as the skunk ape or the woodland sasquatch.

There are places here that are almost supernatural on their own. Small towns isolated in time, one-road-hamlets with ice cream stands across the street from stark white churches, 50s style diners and cash-only single pump stations. You’ll meet some of the friendliest, most earnest folk in the world in these towns. You may think you’ve finally died and gone to heaven. I’ve also come to know that a lot of places here in Ohio are about as close to hell as we humans will see. Little pockets of distilled hate, of insular folk hostile to anyone or anything different, rotting from the inside. Places that drain your spirit and crater your faith in humankind. Pretty towns full of mundane demons who would rather bleed their kids to death in plain view than acknowledge the world outside. Horrific poverty and destitution wrought by business and encouraged by politics with no fix in sight. Of course this isn’t isolated to any town or any state. It spreads and it festers across the midwest, through the rust belt, from coast to coast. With enough time on the road, you learn to keep mostly to yourself until you’re sure which you’re dealing with. 

It was at one of these previously noted ice cream stands on one of the aforementioned grassman journeys that I overheard a possible sighting. It was early August, hot as all get out. I was about 15 minutes out from the largest nature preserve in the state. Sitting on a bench under a big plastic cone, I was trying my damndest to keep my chocolate vanilla twist from dripping onto my hand. Church was just letting out across the road. According to the sign out front, next week was chili week. A small family in dated formalwear trotted over for a post-worship treat. The kids squealed and ran off with their cones. Their parents sat on a bench not far from me. The father said he had a friend who went hiking yesterday and came across a strange clearing. It seemed to be a campsite, but there was no camping gear, no sign of a fire. The clearing was surrounded by odd broken branches, tangled and tied into dangling arcane symbols like wicked Christmas ornaments. Then there were the weird indentations in the dirt. Throughout the site was a sour, skunky smell. He didn’t give many clues as to where this site was, but given the description, I could narrow it down to a couple square miles of land. Besides, what other leads on the midwest bigfoot did I have?

As any seasoned hunter knows, sasquatches, swamp apes, Ohio dog men, the Loveland Frog, and other paranormal phenomena are most active in the early morning. I loaded my camouflage, german-engineered tactical backpack full of the usual supplies: a 1978 Canon F1 with several lenses (which many experts attest is the best camera for capturing the paranormal), 6 rolls of monochromatic 35mm film, motion sensors, an EMF reader for when I’m feeling so inclined, a hiking pole adorned with bells, a compass, a first aid kit, and of course clean water and snacks. 

I set out on the trail just before dawn, camera in hand, looking for the possible hideout of the grassman.

After several hours of pleasant hiking in the estimated area, my eye stopped on a small trail running from the main path. Of course this could just be any random trail, but In my years of searching, I’ve learned to discard logic and follow my instincts. And my instincts said this trail was it. I screwed on the telephoto lens to my camera and crept forward through the tall grass and gnarled roots of towering hickory trees. I could hear something ahead, and through the first sluggish rays of hazy daylight saw snapped and hanging branches. Gnarled bundles of thin twigs twisted and tied into complicated, unrecognizable shapes. A ring of trees ahead cordoned off a small clearing. I could hear faint rustling, and picked up a distinct skunky aroma wafting from the site. I gently set down my pole and backpack. I went prone in the grass, resting my forearms on the backpack to steady my camera, and looked through the viewfinder. 

I saw people. Several young people in tie-dye shirts and flared jeans, passing around a cigarette. I turned my gaze from the viewfinder to the site itself, but saw nothing. They weren’t there. Back to the camera and there they were. I adjusted the aperture and snapped a photo. They must have heard the click and turned my way. I froze, and looked up from the camera. There they were, in the clearing, plain as day.

One of the men held out an open hand in my direction. I slowly rose, my breaths short and quick. I started in their direction and breached the clearing. There were 5 of them, 3 girls and two guys. These people were completely silent, all in dated psychedelic clothing. Two of them were kissing on a log near the edge. The man before me had long hair bound by a headband and small round glasses, tinted a light shade of green. He wore a denim vest over a cream-colored turtleneck. A pendant dangled from his neck in the shape of a white butterfly. And his hand wasn’t so empty after all: in it rested a small, hand rolled cigarette of some kind, the ends twisted shut. I reached for it. It was solid. I took it and put it in my pocket. The man smiled, and pointed north. I understood the meaning of his gesture implicitly. Whatever I was after, it wasn’t here. No, instead of finding the midwest bigfoot, I found some teens making out and smoking grass. I thanked him, and he nodded quietly. I turned to leave the clearing, and when I looked back, they were gone again. I felt my pocket and yes, indeed, the illicit substance was still there. I shook my head to clear my thoughts. This was not the place I was looking for. The man pointed north. So that’s where I would go.

A vast swamp once covered much of northwest Ohio and parts of Indiana and Michigan, a shallow wetland carved eons ago by the slow retreat of glacial masses across the region. Thick patches of sycamores rose high over deep muck, flat marshes extended from Erie to the Maumee. Much of this swamp was drained in the 19th century to make room for cornfields and easier overland travel. Some segments of the swamp remain intact, however, and one such preserve was to be my next stakeout. I readied my usual gear and drove the old van north, through the featureless heart of the state, the land of a thousand antique shops and cheese barns. I only stopped occasionally under the harsh fluorescence of gas station limbo to refresh my caffeine supply or stock up on protein bars. As I drove down the side roads and country highways, the sun sank into the earth, the tall cornfields hiding its parting rays. I spotted a vacant motel with no name. I pulled into the lot and booked a room. Moths and flies drunkenly swayed around the bare fluorescent bulb outside, dancing and stumbling in their reverie.

Once I settled in for the night, I figured what better place to smoke a mysterious joint than a derelict motel? I am a man of science (in some definitions), after all, and by this time it had been a few decades since my last indulgence. I put my lighter to the bent stick of dope and inhaled. The smoke was palatably cheap, skunky, stale, almost earthy, like it had been abandoned in a pair of bellbottoms for a century and was later uncovered and subsequently consumed by some groovy professors on an anthropological dig. Halfway through, I put it out. I felt pleasantly toasty for about 30 minutes before dozing off.

Around midnight, the rotary phone rang on the bedside table. The old clanging felt nostalgic, but not in the good “remembering the smell of your favorite gum” kind of way. More like being reminded of the day your pet died, or how your dad reacted when he found your stash. Familiar dread, I'd call it. I reached my hand out through the bleary darkness for the white plastic receiver and hesitantly put it to my ear. I spoke, *Hello?* but my voice echoed back at me. I made a clicking noise with my tongue *click*, which once again came back through the line. I pressed down the hook to hang up, and the line went quiet. I lifted my hand, and through the earpiece I heard keys gently jingling on a chain, the stutter and rumble of an engine, the buzzing of assorted insects. I pressed the switchhook once more. 

Then I was sitting in my van with the engine idling, pulled off a gravel road and parked parallel to the boundary of some thick woodlands. The window was cracked to let in some of the humid vegetal air. I absentmindedly batted at the keys hanging from the ignition. Crickets played the hits in the tall grass ahead, while mosquitos vied for dominance over my arm. The receiver was still in my hand, tethered via coiled wire to cradle in the passenger’s seat. I hung up the phone and peered into the dark. This was North. In my line of work, you can either just accept the strange things you see and hear as-is, just go with the lunatic flow of the universe, or drive yourself mad trying to explain it all. I had decided long ago to stick with the former. So I grabbed my bag from the back, shut off the engine, and stepped through the threshold into the Great Black Swamp.

Now if you’re not well-versed in wilderness exploration, it’s easy to get lost in a place like this: the boughs of the tall sycamores obscure the stars, frequent marshes and flooded plains render tracks impossible. Even easier still to get lost if you’re a little buzzed on a puff of ghost grass. Getting lost in the woods in an unfamiliar area at night is dangerous, reckless, and yet it’s also the genesis of nearly every cryptozoological, supernatural, and scatalogical tale this side of the Rallys-Checkers divide.

I hid my compass in my pocket for the return trip and set about getting lost. Every couple hundred yards or so, I would pluck a leaf from a tree and drop it, spinning and twirling, to the ground. Whichever way the tip of the leaf pointed was my new direction. This method requires patience and some trial-and-error, but produces results that are most unpredictable. So in this manner, I trudged through the thick muck and tangled undergrowth of the glacier’s footprint. I mostly stayed on the drier land when I could: sasquatches surely don’t like waist-deep swamp water full of leeches and who-knows-what-else anymore than the rest of us.

The night was still and hot, and prevented any natural cooling. I wandered in random directions in a humid hazy odyssey. Clouds of mosquitoes buzzed at my damp ears and neck. Trees before me looked ominous and infinite, the swamp stretched under my feet to unknown horizons. The muck held onto my boots with every step and threatened to pull me deep into the black earth, as if the land itself was fighting my presence. I figured myself much like the early loggers and settlers in the area. I was unwelcome here, and the local flora and fauna were eager to let me know.

It went on and on like this for hours, until I heard a bubbling to my right. Exhausted, drained of a not-insignificant quantity of blood, and still a little fried, I wondered at first if it was my imagination. This notion was quickly dispelled when a hanging bundle of twigs hit me in the forehead, just like the ones I’d seen before. Ahead, I spotted a patch of ripples. I waded into the turbid water toward the troubled bubbles. 

Rather than getting deeper with each step, the swamp around my feet receded, and the rippling spot ahead rose. Dark water rushed in toward the center as it peaked like a cresting wave. The swamp took shape, a towering obelisk of wet mud, clay, branches, and vines, resembling the twisted woodland decorations. Small alien spheres bubbled to the surface and roots reached out like the tentacles of some alien being. I extended my hiking stick to poke at one of the spheres. The mud lifted from its surface like a lid, and below was a yellow eye with a slit pupil. The other spheres opened, an assortment of different sinister eyes in all manner of shapes and colors. Frothy swamp water babbled from its center as it rasped, gurgled, and screeched a crustacean free jazz boogie. This was no skunk ape, no grassman or Loveland frog.

It lurched toward me. I tried to turn and run, but I was stuck: the thick sludge and vegetation left under the water had trapped my boots for real this time. My ragged breaths came more erratically as I struggled to pull at the straps on my shoes, hoping to free them from the muddy midwest’s toxic grip. I nearly got one free when my hand slipped from the wet strap and flew outward, brushing against one outstretched tendril of this creature.

Thousands of words and ideas instantly rushed through my hand, into my head simultaneously, overlapping and combining into a soup of confused imagery: bread juice, cowboys holding hands underwater, The Great Gatsby but every page is alive and hostile. A wave of images zoomed out so far they’re just dots in a complex pointillist wave. My mind was completely overwhelmed, endlessly repeating and synthesizing nonsense phrases and patterns. In a burst of colored light and dust--a negative image of the scene before me--I exploded and I died.

 

Or so I thought, until I realized I had just been closing my eyes too hard. I rubbed at them with my sweaty fists and received another round of mental fireworks, then looked ahead again. The murky obelisk was still there, creeping toward me with malicious intent. But so was something else. Something familiar, standing on spindly legs, strange antenna atop its head, and powdery soft wings. Here it was again, some decades later. It flapped its wings at this muck monster and the abomination fell, the water returning and filling the land around my feet. The winged creature turned back to me, its wide glowing eyes locked unblinking with mine. It pointed with one of its clawed feet to my thigh. Oh god, I thought, this is it. Am I going to lose my leg? Gangrene, trench foot, gout? I yelped and stumbled, my boot coming loose from the wet earth, then fell backward into the swamp.

I looked up into the twisted canopy and saw the gentle light of the moon peeking through the gaps in the branches. Then the eyes were above me again, and the clawed foot pointed at my leg once more. I felt at my thigh for any sign of injury or interest. That’s when I felt it: the last half of my occult reefer cigarette. My fingers fished into my damp pocket and pulled out the crushed, half-smoked spectral spliff. I extended my open hand toward this fuzzy creature. One of its hooked feet bent upwards at an unnatural angle and took its prize, its token for sparing my life once more. Through all my journeys, it turns out the mothman was pretty groovy and just wanted to be smoked out and relax for once. 

By the time I made it back to the van, I was soaked in grimy water, bitten head to toe, and totally sober. I sat in the van for a long time in silence. I rubbed my oily, stubbly chin and thought for as long as I could tolerate. Then I picked up the receiver in the passenger’s seat and dialed my mother’s number.

It ended, as so many surreal nightmares do, in rural Ohio. You drive out through the soy fields owned by one company full of patented seeds, past the poison miasma of suburbia and into the real deep country night, under the blistering stars and spires of rock and steel and into the Great Black Swamp, where there yet remains a sliver of the unknown. 

CONWAY: Tests run on the inciting liquid returned a rather mundane result: particles of dirt, vegetation, and microscopic lifeforms suspended in water. In other words, a simple water sample, likely from a swamp or marsh. As such, this letter, DL-10609, has been deemed undeliverable due to both contamination and an invalid address. The manuscript will be dried and subsequently stored in our vault. For the Dead Letter Office of *****, Ohio, this is Conway, signing off.