Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
I’m writing this because my family won’t talk about it anymore. I’m the only one who can’t seem to forget.
I was raised on the outskirts of Preston, a small town in southern Idaho with a population of around 5,000. My more immediate community was an isolated, dead-end dirt road called Bear Creek. Less than twenty families lived on the Bear Creek. I didn’t mind being so isolated. I grew up in the comfort of wide fields and close neighbors that only rural people know.
We were a Mormon community. Very church centered. Very community centered. All the young girls, myself included, were part of the Young Women’s group. And all of the boys were members of the local Boy Scout troop (which doubled as a church group in our area). We had 4th of July parties at the local ballpark and swam in the nearby reservoir. It was a good, quiet community.
My house, a 92 year old farmhouse built by my great-great-grandfather, was situated on a small hill surrounded by a wide grass field on one side, and a snaking dirt road on the other. Across the road was the creek bottoms. Southern Idaho is categorized in a desert climate, so not much grows outside of the irrigated fields besides sage brush and burrs. The creek bottoms were the exception. The creek fed the growth of a thick tangle of pussy-willow bushes. In the late fall we used to go down into the bottoms and pick the white, cottony pussy-willow seeds to decorate the fences of our driveway.
Being so isolated, it wasn’t uncommon for animals to come down from the mountains. We had a female moose who brought her calf down and lived in our orchard every winter. And the occasional lion wasn’t unheard of either.
The summer when I turned eight (I remember because it was the same year as my baptism), a smaller mountain lion was spotted several times in our area. We weren’t worried. The big cats stayed away from the farms and usually moved on when the area didn’t yield enough food.
The same summer my neighbor, Payton, was working on his Eagle Scout project. He loved National Geographic, and thought it would be pretty cool to try putting together a National Geographic submission on our little creek bottoms. The young lion that happened to be in our area at the same time made him especially excited. He decided he wanted to try and get pictures of the lion and e-mailed the National Geographic team for advice.
They recommended setting up an automatic camera that takes shots every couple of seconds in an area the lion was known to visit. They also recommended setting some kind of bait so the lion was more likely to come by. No one in the creek liked the idea of live bait or carrion, so we came up with a different kind of bait.
We decided to set up an audio recording of a dying rabbit and play it on a loop through a set of speakers hidden in the willows. I remember when everyone was down in the bottoms testing the speakers, and I heard the noise for the first time. The sound of a dying rabbit is horrible. It’s been described as being almost identical to the sound of a screaming child. If you’ve never heard it yourself, there’s plenty of recordings available online. It’s worth a listen.
The camera was set up. The speakers were set up. Everything was perfect. Payton explained that he would allow the camera and recording to play uninterrupted for a week, and then he would go check on it. This would give time for our scent to fade from the bottoms and encourage the lion to come closer.
At first I was worried about the noise. It was a truly horrible noise, and our house was the closest to the set-up point in the bottoms. My father assured me that the noise wouldn’t reach as far as our house, and I was relieved when we arrived home that night and he was correct. The bottoms were far enough away that I couldn’t hear anything.
I remember Payton the next day at church. He was fidgety and excited to check on the equipment. But he had to wait a week, which everybody kept reminding him. He couldn’t risk going down too early and scaring the lion away for good.
That night I woke up to an awful noise. I sat ram-rod straight in my bed with my eyes wide in the dark, hands clutched so hard my palms bore the indent of my fingernails for hours after. I knew that noise. It was the recording of the rabbit. It sounded faint, and far off, like it really could have been coming from the bottoms. But that was impossible. Because the recording had been going all night the previous day and I hadn’t heard a thing.
I didn’t sleep that night. I was too scared to get out of bed and wake my parents. The recording played over and over again. I had the loop memorized. In the morning I stumbled into the kitchen for breakfast. My mom and dad were sitting at the kitchen table. They too had dark rings under their eyes. I hadn’t been the only one who’d heard it.
Mom was convinced that the equipment must have been broken. She wanted to go down into the bottoms to check it out. Dad refused. He was a kind, gentle man and didn’t want to stir up any unnecessary drama. He was sure there had been a strong wind last night, and the wind was carrying the noise farther than it’s natural reach. He told us to listen. We did. He was right, we couldn’t hear it now.
We forgot about it and went about our daily goings.
The next night, it happened again. I stayed up in bed with my back to the wall. The screaming was even louder than before. But this time something was different. It was lower pitched than I remember. And parts of the loop were slowed down, as if the recording were warped in places. At times the loop did not loop naturally, and instead picked up at a random place in the middle.
My mom didn’t mention anything at the breakfast table. But both her and my dad seemed tense.
The third night I mustered the courage to stand beside my bedroom window and look out into the yard. For a moment I stood, rooted to the spot, my hands shaking no matter how hard I clenched them. The noise sidled in through the cracks in the window. I watched the outline of the trees in the yard. Perfectly still. Not even the slightest breeze stirred their branches.
My mom announced that she would be going to visit her sisters in town the next day, and would probably spend the night there. She invited me to come along, but I was a daddy’s girl at heart and chose to stay at the farm. I took mom’s place beside dad in their bed that night but even that didn’t help. I don’t think my dad was asleep either, for he was unnaturally still the whole night.
We began to hear the noise during the day too. I was drawing with chalk on the sidewalk when it happened. My shoulders tensed and the hairs on the back of my neck prickled. There was only one scream. A short, high pitched one. And then the recording fell silent. It happened again several times throughout the day, but never the whole loop. Just clips from it.
Later that evening Payton’s dad came up the driveway on his 4-wheeler. He said he was looking for their dog, a sweet yellow lab who had been missing since that morning. Dad said he was sorry, and that we hadn’t seen her. I stared at him, silently begging him to mention the recording. But he didn’t. He was a quiet man after all. He didn’t want to bring up any unnecessary drama.
Mom stayed away the whole week. Dad and I didn’t sleep. By Saturday the screaming could be heard constantly, though it seemed to have deviated from the familiar loop entirely. I didn’t recognize any of it. Sometimes the screams were thin and long, other times they were hardly more than growls. Once, while my dad had been heating up meat loaf for lunch, the noise rose into such a rancorous din that he dropped the plate and it shattered. I pressed my hands over my ears where I sat at the table and squeezed my eyes shut, but it didn’t help. The noise forced its way in through the cracks of my fingers and pinched my throat and rattled in my ribcage. The din lasted for a whole minute, then fell silent.
Dad was shaking. That was the last we heard of the noise that day.
Payton came by Saturday evening to ask permission to cross our road to collect the equipment. He was so excited. I watched him disappear into the creek bottoms with a sense of tired relief. After the equipment was gone, it would all stop. I couldn’t wait to get a full nights sleep.
Not a minute later I spotted Payton coming back up from the creek. I was confused. It had taken us much longer to set up the camera and speakers, so I’d only assumed it would take just as long to collect them. My breath stilled when Payton came closer. He didn’t look right. His eyes were wide and his face pale. Something wet dribbled from his chin and onto his shirt; I later realized it was vomit. My dad caught him before he fell and demanded to know what had happened.
Payton couldn’t speak. He just cried.
We called his dad. I looked after Payton as both my dad and his dad went into the bottoms. They were gone a long time. When they returned, their faces were grim. And they smelled funny. I noticed red on my dad’s hands. I asked what was wrong but they brushed right passed me and immediately called the police.
Nobody would tell me what had happened. I sat on the couch as a blur of neighbors and police officers swirled around me. At one point an officer placed something on the kitchen table and left. I looked into the kitchen curiously. It was the camera from the bottoms.
I wish I hadn’t looked.
The camera was a little banged up. Tiny scratches and dents covered the plastic casing. When I lifted it my hands stuck to the plastic. Something tacky and odorous covered the screen, but it turned on fine.
The first set of photos were normal. Just the pussy-willows cast green in the glow of the night setting. As I continued to click through them they quickly became strange. At one point the camera angle changed, as if the camera had been knocked from its post. Grass now obscured most of the frame. Flecks of red appeared on the lens and remained for the rest of the sets. One photo made me pause.
There was a figure in this one. Or half of a figure as most of the upper torso hadn’t made it into the frame. I thought it could be human. But it didn’t look like it should be standing upright. It’s legs were twisted, like an animal, and it seemed to be having difficulty supporting itself in an upright position. Beside the legs a long, thin arm hung. Whatever it was must have been stooped over, for its fingertips hung below its crooked knees.
The next set was different. It was as if the camera had been picked up, and was now being held. The first photo was of the bottoms at night. The next startled me. I had to look closely before deciding what it was. A rabbit had been laid in the bushes, but its ears and most of its scalp had been peeled away. The next was of the same rabbit, but a thin, dark hand was holding it up against the sky. It’s limp body hung like something from a nightmare.
In the following photos more rabbits joined the one, each with their ears and scalp removed. Then a cat. Then more cats. Then a dog, the yellow lab. Then the lion. The following photo was of seven rabbits, three cats, one dog, and the lion all laid out in a row facing the same way. Their arms and legs had been arranged as if they were marching. Like some parade. All of their scalps had been removed and tiny white glints of their skulls could be seen.
The last photo was overly bright. Like the photo had been taken too close with the flash on. An eye dominated the frame, but it was yellowed and crusty, and had a bar pupil like a horse. In the bottom corner the edge of a mouth could be seen. No lips. Just teeth. Sharp and little, with wide gaps of red gum between them.
I wish I hadn’t looked.
I heard my dad talking to the police outside. They said the speakers had malfunctioned. The recording had only played the first night.