To be honest, it was all about delay. Maura was going to Rhode Island School of Design, there had never been any question of that. Goodie still wasn’t sure he wanted to go to University of Boston, but he was. Arnie was going to M. I. T., and I was taking my gap year. As my mother put it, “You could do anything you want to.” Because I was a musician, a math wiz, a creative vlogger, and a nice guy who could be a therapist, just like his parents. Of course, the one thing I couldn’t do was get admitted to RISD. Which meant things were over with Maura, pretty much. I’d have held out more hope if I hadn’t heard the relief in her voice when I told her about my rejection.
So we went camping. Out last outing as a gang. At the end of August we’d go our separate ways. Goodie and Arnie would stay in touch, but Maura would be sleeping with some upperclassman already pulling shows in the East Village, and I’d be working at McDonald’s, still trying to figure my shit out.
“We deserve this memory,” I told them.
Eventually I got everyone on board. The gang usually does what I want. Whether that’s acting in my latest video, or going to a renfair, or marching with Black Lives Matter, or whatever. They always do what I want. Even though I’m the one who doesn’t know what he wants.
The campsite I picked out was the most remote one I could find—keeping in mind that we were in the northeast, where the white man has been building roads for over three hundred years. It was in a state park near the Canadian border, near a town with the fabulous name of Nowhere, Vermont. It sounded like Odysseus dodging tourists rather than cyclops. “Where did you go last summer?” “Nowhere. Had a great time.” “I like staying home sometimes, too.” The plan was to rent two canoes, paddle the length of a two-mile lake, portage five hundred feet around a bog, then cross another twisty lake to a remote lean-to, miles from the nearest road.
We got a late start, as usual, because Arnie was sure there was a more efficient way to pack everything.
“Tell me that isn’t better,” he said when we finally took off, with a good six inches of visibility out the rear window. Then we were delayed because we had to stop at a “local diner” rather than fast food for lunch. This was Maura’s obsession.
“The journey is the adventure,” she said, for the fourteenth time.
“Yeah, but…” Across the counter the cook was making a ham sandwich, which involved carefully removing a hunk of ham from the cooler, selecting a knife, honing the edge, and meticulously cutting a quarter-inch slice of ham.
I dropped my voice. “At this rate the journey is going to be the entire adventure.”
I have to admit, it was probably the best ham sandwich I ever had, but it meant we didn’t get to the park until after six.
“It’s kind of late to set out for the remote site, now,” the ranger told us.
“We’re good,” I assured him. I’d be damned if we’d spend a night in a motel or something.
“Sunset isn’t until, what, eight up here?”
“Seven fifty-six. But it’ll be dark under the trees before then.”
“We have headlamps,” I said.
“You need to be in camp before dark,” the ranger insisted. “We’ve got a problem bear here.”
There was a little pause before he said “bear,” so small I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination.
“Well, then get us the paddles and we’ll be off.”
“Cheese and crackers, there’s no talking you out of this.”
Yes, he really said “cheese and crackers.” He was a roly-poly, balding ranger who could almost get away with it. “Well, couple things you need to know. The best way to keep the bear out is there’s a rope in the lean-to tied with some iron spikes. String that around your camp, it’ll keep him out.”
“Seriously, a rope to keep out a bear?” I said.
“It’s the iron spikes,” the ranger said. “He doesn’t like the noise.”
“Sure,” Maura said. “It’ll keep out fairies, too.”
The ranger glanced at Goodie and Arnie. “Cheese and crackers! That’s no business of mine.”
“She means elves,” I said.
The ranger just shook his head, as if it were beyond him to try to understand city people.
“Just put up the rope. For the bear. Also, make sure you use the portage trail between the lakes. It looks like you could take a short cut through the bog, but a lot of what looks like ground there isn’t. Just a layer of peat floating on water and muck. Couple of folks have gotten stuck, and one we couldn’t get out in time. Don’t mean to scare you, but, portage trail, rope around your site, you’ll have a good time.”
By the time we had the paddles and loaded up it was 6:45. Arnie had to make sure that the loads were properly and evenly distributed, and for once I appreciated his precision. Since we were all underage, we didn’t want to take a chance of having to buy more alcohol far from home. So we had coolers loaded with four cases of beer, two jugs of whiskey, not to mention six days worth of groceries. As it was, the canoes floated barely six inches between water and rail, and handled like battleships. I’d hate to try them unbalanced.
But it meant the sun was already near the horizon when we made it across the first lake.
“Okay, we’ve got to do this systematically,” Arnie said as soon as we beached. “Work from the front of the canoe to the back, pile everything on the bank in a line, not a heap. Then once we get the canoes over it’ll go right back in.
We ran the goods up the trail, but of course Goodie didn’t keep them in line. In case you’re wondering, his real name is Ben, but Arnie got so tired of him saying “It’s good enough,” one day he declared, “That’s you’re new name. Good Enough.” And it was… until it got shortened to Good-E, or just Goodie. Their interpersonal dynamic cost us another fifteen minutes reloading everything—made longer by Arnie’s complaining about his sloppiness and Maura’s complaining about his complaining.
“All this rushing is making the journey really unpleasant. The bear isn’t going to be punching a clock. Can’t we appreciate the process?”
“I’ll appreciate the process a lot more once we’ve got where we’re going,” Goodie said.
“Forgive me if I don’t want to search the woods in the dark for a lean-to, while simultaneously dodging bears.”
“I’m not seriously worried about a bear,” I said. “But I definitely do want to find our camp before it gets too dark to see.”
The canoes were just as heavy on the second lake. We shoved them through the water while the sky faded from red to cool gray, and the surrounding trees from green to black. Goodie leapt from his boat the moment it scraped on land, and ran up into the woods. I wanted to dash after him, but I forced myself to be cool and wait for Maura to get out, haul the canoe up on the rocks, and brace it for me to climb out.
I picked up my duffel. Already the darkness under the trees was thick, but I made out Goodie easily. Especially because he was clanking like a knight in armor. He made it almost to the landing, dragging a rope behind him.
“This will lead you right to it,” he said. “Then we can close it around the camp when we’re done. Let’s go!”
We started hauling our gear up—except Maura, who had to go and see the camp first. Maura could not be rushed into anything. One of the first signs of trouble in our relationship. At any rate, camp was a mossy lean-to, just far enough into the woods to be invisible from the lake, but not so far you couldn’t see water through the trees. We hauled everything easily enough. We were down to two little day packs and a cooler full of beer. Maura and I went back for them.
I figured she could take the day packs and I could haul the cooler, but she just picked up one day pack and was off. I almost left the other day pack for a second trip, when I heard a splash. A big splash. The lake had a squiggly W shape, so I couldn’t see the far end, but somewhere, something big had landed in the water. I slung the daypack on my back, picked up the cooler, and legged it up to the camp.
“The bear’s on its way,” I announced.
“Grab the rope,” Goodie said. “Wrap it around the camp.”
Arnie was building the fire. Maura was… making sure everything was arranged with proper feng shui or something. I went back for the rope.
There was something in the lake, all right. A dark smudge that hadn’t been there before. It was moving. Broad, black, and hairy, the back of a bear, just breaking the surface. It was moving pretty quickly, straight toward us.
This is New England, not the Rocky Mountains. We have black bears, not grizzlies. Black bears can kill you without a thought, but they don’t hunt you. As long as you keep your distance, let the bear do whatever it wants, and stay away from the cubs, they aren’t really dangerous. But there was something about the sight of that broad hairy back coming straight for me that I didn’t like. I found the end of the rope, and hurried back to camp, looping it up as I went.
The spikes were tied in every ten feet or so, three of them tied together to make a loose, clangy iron triangle.
There was something wrong about that bear, I thought as I played out the rope around camp, looping it over low branches and around saplings. Suddenly it hit me, just as I reached the end of the rope, and discovered I’d tried to surround too big a camp and couldn’t close the cordon. Wouldn’t a bear swim with its head above water?
I considered my incomplete cordon. No rope would stop a bear that wanted to get in. Hell, it wouldn’t even delay a bear, he’d walk right through as if it weren’t there. The rope was simply symbolic. Touch the rope and there’s a clangy noise. As such, it wouldn’t matter that there was a ten foot gap in the rope, I didn’t think. Not to a bear.
Bears don’t swim underwater for a hundred yards. Bears don’t, I didn’t think, swim quite that fast.
I hurried back, unwrapped the saplings, circled halfway around the camp so I could cut five feet off the diameter. I’d just started back around when something moved down at the lake.
It was too dark to see anything under the trees, but the lake still reflected sky glow. The lake was bright gray between the black trunks of trees. The shadow that passed briefly between wood and water was definitely bear-shaped. Either that or a fat human. It stood erect, then shifted to the side so I couldn’t see it, except as flashes of movement.
I stopped watching and started stretching the rope around camp.
“Incoming!” I called.
“Hurry! Hurry!” Goodie said.
“We should make some noise,” Arnie said. “Bears don’t like noise.”
Funny how it is that when told to “make noise” everybody falls silent, trying to figure out what to say. Meanwhile there I was, on the outer edge, listening to the crash of something big getting closer through the woods.
“I’m making noise!” I said loudly. “Noise, noise, noise! I’m a loud, scary noise-maker!”
Goodie took up the song. “I’m even noisier! Noisy-noise! I’m the noisiest noisy noise in noise-land!”
I reached the starting end of the rope, joined them with a quick square knot, and retreated to the fire.
We abandoned even our lame efforts at noise-making as we all strained to hear the dark. The shadows were silent. No birds, no crickets. Just the wind in the trees.
“I guess it wandered off,” I said.
A single metallic clank sounded somewhere between us and the lake. We listened intently. A double clank, a little to the left. Another, further around. We didn’t hear anything passing through the brush. We didn’t see a shadow move. One by one, the iron triangles clanked, now passing behind the lean-to, emerging on the other side, passing around, back to the beginning.
We held our breath. Suddenly every triangle around the camp rattled at once. Maura picked up the cast iron dutch oven and clanged the lid against it, shouting deep and fierce. We all joined in, shrieking at the top of our lungs.
Silence. Silence and stillness. Then we heard a scraping sound, further away, the sound of metal on stone.
“The canoes!” Goodie said. “It’s going after the canoes, we’ll be trapped!”
“It’s a bear,” Arnie said. “It doesn’t know it can do that.”
“Bears are a lot smarter than we think,” Maura said.
A loud, metallic crunch seemed to side with Maura. Then more scraping, and a large splash.
“Even if he does sink the canoes,” I said. “We can walk out. It’ll be five-six miles of bushwhacking, but it’s perfectly doable. Just a day hike.”
The noises had no answer to that. After a moment we heard a bird call, a soft screech. Then the crickets started.
“Well, that was exciting,” said Arnie. “Should we get supper on?”
“We’d need to gather more wood for the fire,” Goodie said.
We all considered wandering around in the dark outside our faerie perimeter.
“We could cook the burgers on the camp stove,” Goodie said.
“No way,” Maura said. “That’s the only fresh food we brought, I’m not ruining our only cook-out. Let’s break out the macaroni.”
“We’d need to go to the lake for water,” I said.
That sounded even scarier.
“The chili, then,” Goodie said. So we ate canned chili, and drank our ration of two beers and then another, because the fire had gone out and we couldn’t make s’mores. Then maybe a little whiskey, because it was the first night. Because we’d been scared. No one looked at their watch when we went to bed. It was one of our rules when camping. No phones, no internet, no watches. But it was really late.
If you’ve never slept in a lean-to, you’ve missed something. Closed in on three sides, wide open on the fourth. With a huge overhang, they are dry in all but the most violent storms, but there’s nothing, not even a screen, between you and the night. Usually, I loved them. But that night I’d have been happier of something, even half-a-millimeter of rip-stop nylon, surrounding me.
In the morning all our fear of monstrous bears had melted away. We had only to contend with the hassle of mild hangovers and the canoes. One had a big dent in the side, the other was floating upside down in the middle of the lake. Arnie quickly hammered out the dent with a large rock. It wouldn’t win any beauty prizes, but it was roughly canoe-shaped. Then he and I paddled out to the other. It was largely undamaged, once it was hauled out of the water and put back right-side up. We weren’t sure if it had had those four long scratch marks before.
By the time we got back to camp, Goodie and Maura had gathered enough firewood for the remaining six days, so all the trauma of the night had been solved, and we could laugh at how scared we had gotten over a stupid bear who was, we avowed religiously, more afraid of us than we were of him. Maura had found a curious burl of wood she’d started carving, and Goodie was journaling, so I went back on the lake and caught a small perch. It wasn’t enough to make dinner with, so we stuck it on ice in the cooler and cooked our burgers. By the time night fell, we were encamped and ready. We’d even hauled the canoes up into our enclosure, just for safe keeping. But night fell, and with it, nothing. We convinced ourselves we’d just scared ourselves stupid, and this time got a good night’s sleep.
The next day I felt a compulsion to catch enough fish to go with the one I caught yesterday. The others climbed a nearby mountain while I brought in three more perch, which gave us a big fish dinner. The fear of the first night was forgotten.
The last day of our trip, we decided to go to the bog at the far side of the lake. We weren’t going to try to cross it, of course. But there were a lot of cool plants that grew in bogs. All the carnivorous plants, like sundews and pitcher plants and venus fly traps, and orchids like pink lady’s slippers, that bloomed once in four years. Not to mention crossbills, flycatchers, and red-capped warblers.
We negotiated a winding path as far into the bog as our canoes could take us. Finally we reached a limit in a two inches of tea-colored water between mushy banks. We found a lot of sundew along the edge, and a couple pitcher plants, the deadly cone-shaped leaves lying in splayed whorls, looking stomped-on and innocent. Then Maura spied a dash of pink, ten yards inland, and had to get out of the boat.
“Remember what the ranger said,” Goodie warned.
“I’ll check my footing,” she promised. “Worst that can happen, I get stuck in the mud and lose a shoe, right?”
Then before anyone could stop her she was out of the canoe and, one careful step at a time, making her way toward the pink.
“Oh, wow!” she said.
So I climbed out, too. The ground felt spongy and uncertain underfoot. I tested my weight with each step. Though I was never completely sure it would hold me, I made it. There was the orchid, a single blossom, bright pink on a thin green stalk. It didn’t quite look like a silk lady’s slipper. Not unless she wore a quadruple E.
“Isn’t it marvelous?” Maura said.
Yes, I suppose it was. I took a step closer, and my foot went through the moss, halfway to my knee.
“Dang,” I said, and pulled, but it didn’t come free. I pulled again. “I’m stuck,” I said with a laugh. It felt like something had caught around my ankle.
“Do you need a hand?” Maura asked.
She came over, and I put my hands on her shoulder and pulled. I was held tight.
“I think I’m caught under some root or something,” I said. “Let me…” I tried angling my foot one way, then the other. Whatever I had caught on had looped tight around my ankle. I couldn’t help imagining that I was held.
“Do you need help?” Arnie asked.
“I’m tangled on something,” I said. “Either that or the bog monster’s got me.”
I said it to be a joke, then wished I hadn’t.
“You need my knife?” Arnie asked.
“Good idea,” I said. “I’ve got mine.”
I unfolded my lock blade, and tried to dig through the peat. It was weird. The ground was so matted it really resisted digging. I tried instead to cut out a square, and that went easily. No sooner had I pried a block out than I felt a tug on my ankle, and sank two inches deeper.
“Hey!” I just reacted, really. The ground was pulling me, so I stabbed the ground. Shoved the blade deep in right next to my foot. My ankle released, so suddenly I fell over backwards, and dropped my knife.
I was soaking wet. My knife had vanished, too. Probably sunk just an inch deep in the brown water, but no way to know where. Losing my knife irritated me, and with the soaking in bog water, my interest in rare orchids was seriously curtailed. This annoyed Maura no end.
“You know how you say the journey is half the adventure?” I asked. “Well, now the journey kind of sucks.”
“For you, maybe. It’s always about you, isn’t it?”
Seemed to me it was always about how it wasn’t about me, but there wasn’t any point in arguing, anymore. We were over. We were just waiting for circumstances to separate us so we wouldn’t have to dig up the courage to say so.
As we paddled back to camp, I couldn’t help but think about how much it had felt like something had held my ankle, and pulled, and let go when I stabbed. Steel knife. Steel is, of course, just a specially treated iron. Very different sheer strength, much more able to hold a sharp edge, but it’s still the element Fae. If iron burns, so does steel.
Just to finish the mood, it began to rain. Nothing serious, just a steady patter that meant sitting around the campfire was not going to happen. I changed clothes, Goodie strung the perimeter rope, and Arnie cooked up the last of the macky cheese. We were out of beer, because of course we hadn’t kept to our two-a-night ration, so we sat in the lean-to, drank the last of the whiskey, and thought maudlin thoughts about not seeing each other again. Night fell, but no one wanted to go to bed, because once we went to bed there’d be nothing left but going home and going our separate ways.
“I’m going to miss being able to get out in the woods like this,” Maura said. “I mean, just listen to the night! There’s not a sound of civilization anywhere!”
We listened. She was right. There was no traffic. No refrigerator hum. No HVAC. The rain had eased up, just a soft pitter of drops off the trees. No birds. No crickets. Pitt, pitt, pitter-pat. Silence in between.
“We did string the rope around camp, didn’t we?” I asked.
“I did,” Goodie said. “It’s fine.”
We listened. Silence between the rain drops.
One of the iron triangles on the lake side clanged.
“That was just the wind,” Goodie said, but it was obvious he was trying to persuade himself.
“There isn’t any wind,” Arnie said.
Another clanged, then another, once again circling the camp. It went all the way around, behind the lean-to. Then it stopped. We listened, willing the triangles to continue the clang around camp. Silence.
“Goodie…” I said slowly. “When you put the rope around camp… did you tie the two ends together?”
“I tied it to the nail on the side of the lean-to,” Goodie said defensively.
“The same nail?” I asked. “Both ends to the same nail?”
“No, one on one side, the other on the other. It’s good enough.”
We heard a faint scratching noise from the roof. All eyes looked up, as if we might be able to see through the ceiling.
“We should make some noise,” Maura whispered.
A soft, muddy voice answered her from up above. “I’m a loud, scary noise-maker.”
“That’s no fucking bear!” Maura exclaimed, and jumped out of the lean-to, ready to give a thorough tongue-lashing to whoever was trying to scare us.
A swollen, livid arm shot down and grabbed a fistful of blond curls, lifting her kicking off the ground.
I jumped out, snagged the dutch oven, and swung it in a long-armed arc, connecting meatily with the thing’s forearm. It dropped her in a howl of rage.
“Run!” I shouted. “Run for the canoes!”
Arnie and Goodie took off like a bullet. Maura picked herself up and scampered after them. My headlamp illuminated a huge shape on the lean-to roof, a bulbous head and a vaguely human mouth, except the lips made a neat, sucker-like oval, and it was several times too large. The shape quivered, like a cat ready to pounce. I hurled the dutch oven at its sucker, and bolted before I saw if I hit or not.
Goodie and Arnie were turning their boat around, Maura was kneeling backwards in the stern of ours, paddling backwards. I had to run out into the lake to leap aboard. We didn’t waste any time turning but just paddled like crazy.
We were a hundred yards off shore before we heard the splash of it hitting the lake. Goodie and Arnie were two or three lengths behind but catching up quickly. I remembered how fast the thing had come at us the first night. There was no way we could outrun it. Not over a mile of lake.
We were rounding the first bend when I saw a shimmer in the water behind us, a faint V pointed right between us. Goodie and Arnie were just overtaking. The V drew closer, then with a sudden flip of hairy back it vanished. The thing had dived down to the bottom. The next time we saw it, it would be right alongside.
Iron. We needed iron, but I’d lost my knife in the bog, and the damn canoes were made of aluminum.
“Incoming!” I shouted.
A second later two mottled arms shot up on either side of Goodie and Arnie’s boat. The boat crumpled between them, folding in half and going straight down, middle-first. Maura and I paddled like crazy. There was some splashing behind us, but I didn’t look back. Then the splashing stopped. Either it was feasting on their bones, or saving them for later and coming after us. I kept my eyes on the portage way. If we could just make the portage way, we’d be out of this hell-hole. The monster couldn’t follow on the other lake, I was sure.
I looked back. The V in the water was making straight for us, coming fast, but we were going to make it.
“Maura!” I shouted. “When we hit ground, don’t wait for me. Just run!”
The canoe scraped on gravel. Maura jumped out so fast the canoe had no time to rock. I jumped out, whipped it up onto my shoulders like some epic pioneer, and ran the five hundred foot portage way. My lungs were burning for air, but I kept running, anyway. Up ahead Maura was waiting for me, right at the edge of the bog land.
I wanted to shout at her, “Swim out into the lake! Get away!” but I had no air to shout. I wanted to wave her ahead, but my hands were full of canoe.
“Hurry!” she shouted, as if I could have run any faster.
At first it looked like a wave of mud, rising toward her in slow-motion horror. Then it sprouted those swollen arms, and the leering, bulbous head. It enveloped her. I ran right past, threw the canoe on the water and threw myself in the canoe. The force of my panic carried me a hundred feet from shore before I could pick up my paddle and start the two mile trip across the black lake. Nothing pursued me.
Of course I pounded on the ranger’s cabin until he got up. I told him he had to go help my friends, but he just said, “Cheese and crackers! Not in the middle of the night!”
He called the sheriff. It took the sheriff forty-five minutes to get there. By that time I had been able to think about what to tell him, and decided “bog monster” was probably best. He’d assume I was scared of shadows, but it would mean whatever evidence he found—whether it looked more human or bear—wouldn’t contradict what I’d said. He went out on the lake and shone a powerful light all around the bog area, but didn’t cross the portage way until after sunrise.
In the morning they retrieved the canoe, but no bodies. The canoe had been folded so efficiently the bow and stern nearly touched. The sheriff concluded that Goodie and Arnie had been trapped in the crumpled metal, and drowned. “The bear just spooned them out like two halves of an avocado. Bones are probably buried in the silt at the bottom of the lake.”
But they know there is something unnatural in that bog. They know, and they let us go there. I know they know, because they retrieved our gear, including our dutch oven, and our dutch oven had a smear of blood on it. They said they sent it to “the lab” to be tested, but they never said whether it was bear or human blood. They never said anything at all. When I called, a month later, they couldn’t find any record of having taken our dutch oven at all.
Credit: Eugene Fairfield
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