Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
I’d always been afraid of Scorpion River. Ever since I was eight, I’d gone with my aunt, uncle, and older cousin into the wilderness of southern Arizona where we’d spend two nights in their rickety, blue, camper. We weren’t alone. Around ten other families joined us for that December weekend. The adults sat around the fire, swapping stories of better days, back when the economy was stable and kids respected their elders. The seven or so of us children quickly grew bored of the talk and went exploring.
To call Scorpion River a river was an overstatement. Water only ran there once or twice a year. The rest of the time it was just an expanse of sand. Our campsite was close to the river, yet the sandy cliffs meant that one had to fight through half a mile of cat claws and ancient mesquite trees to get to it.
Yet every day without fail we’d make the trip. It was worth it to play games of tag in the flat sand or to make forts below the huge cottonwoods which lined that part of the river. Every time an adult would come with us, much to our annoyance. They made sure we kept to the stretch of cottonwoods. The only time we were allowed to leave that was when the group of adults decided to hike to what we called the Funnel.
The Funnel was a natural rock formation, a vertical tunnel cut up through the cliffs on the other side of the river. It was beautiful; a pipe of smooth, reddish stone which seemed to lead up into the sky itself. It was easily my favorite part of the trip. The only thing I didn’t like was getting there.
To reach the Funnel, we had to pass through what I called Raven Forest. Here the trees were close together, the bark blackened by some ancient fire. Every time we went through, the screeching of ravens would fill the air. The light played tricks on your eyes, making it seem as if there were figures standing in the shadows.
As I grew older, the feeling of unease grew too. I began to hear whispering in the trees, voices always too low to be understood, but distinctly unfriendly. I spoke about it to my cousin, Jade, but she dismissed it, telling me it was my imagination. Every year, more and more strange things would happen, explainable, but just strange enough to put me on edge.
Nothing stayed where we put it. Camper doors would open and close of their own accord. The campfire would sometimes flare without warning. My aunt and uncle once brought their German Shepherd, thinking he would have a fun time running with the kids. For the entire trip, he stayed close to camp, whimpering whenever we attempted to get him to come down to the river with us.
As strange as things got, nothing downright out of the ordinary happened. Not until one year, the year Jade and I turned 18, when my 16 year old cousin, Mason, decided to come camping with us. He was a tall youth, big for his age, a football player with something to prove. As there were three of us and we were older now, my aunt and uncle decided we could go out by ourselves. Every chance we got we went down to the river to explore, no longer hindered by the younger children.
Jade and Mason often got annoyed with me, as I always refused to enter Raven Forest. Jade wanted to climb the trees, as she was going through a gymnastics phase, while Mason wanted to prove he wasn’t afraid of an old, spooky forest. One evening, the two couldn’t stand it anymore and told me they were going in whether I came with them or not. I declined and the two disappeared into the woods, leaving me alone at the edge of the river.
I sat down on the little cliff and waited as the sun began to sink below the tree line. I gradually became aware of a horrible smell coming from a nearby stand of bushes. I grew curious and went over to investigate. The bushes were low and thorny, forcing me to crawl to get through.
I crawled on hands and knees over the uneven ground, finally stopping when my fingers touched something soft. I took out my phone flashlight and shone it on the ground.
Instantly I was moving backward, ignoring the thorns which tore at my hair. For, lying on the ground, was a pile of dead songbirds, heads missing, surrounded by blood and ants. I pulled myself to the edge of the river and stayed there, breathing hard, trying not to throw up.
Several minutes later my cousins returned, talking and laughing. They stopped when they saw me sitting on the cold ground, shivering.
“What happened?” Jade asked.
I numbly pointed towards the stand of trees. The two of them went over to look, returning a moment later, faces grave.
“What would do that?” I asked.
“Some kind of predator?” Jade suggested, “You know, like a fox, a coyote, something…”
“Why would it just pile them up like that? There must be fifty of them, all lined up in a circle like-”
“Let’s leave.” Mason interrupted. “It’s almost dark.”
We started towards the other side of the river, walking at first, then running.
“I really think we’re overreacting,” Jade said when we reached the other side and paused to catch our breath. “There must be some logical explanation. Maybe they just happened to be there and weren’t arranged like it seemed. Did any of us look very hard?”
“The heads were missing,” Mason said. “Explain that.”
“They might have rotted away.”
The longer we talked, the more reasonable the birds seemed. After around ten minutes of proposing theories, we were calm. Mason decided to try climbing the cliff to get to camp instead of going through the river bed, which was muddy from a recent rain. He’d just gotten a new pair of red converse and didn’t want them ruined. Jade and I, knowing how many thorn bushes were between us and camp, decided to go down the river before going up the cliff.
We split up. Once we were about halfway up the path, we heard rustling in the bushes. Thinking it was a deer, we ignored it and continued. Jade stopped to tie her shoe.
“We should go up to the funnel.” She said, bending down.
“By ourselves?” I asked, scared yet a little excited.
“That’d be-” I stopped.
Behind her, in the thorn bushes, was a dark shape. It was hunched, humanoid, though in the growing darkness it was hard to make out details. I glanced at Jade, and when I looked back it was gone.
“What is it?” Jade asked.
I pointed. “There was…something there.”
“It was probably Mason.” She stood up. “Hey! Mason! Get out here and stop trying to scare us.”
“Aw, come on.” He called.
I was relieved until he stepped out of the woods on the other side of the trail. There was no way he could have moved that fast and that quietly. I tried to explain what I’d seen to the two of them, but they just laughed it off.
We spent the night around the campfire, listening to my uncle play guitar. That night nothing strange happened and we all awoke early, eager to go on our trip.
We left just after the sun rose over the cliffs. In the daylight, the forest was decidedly less creepy. We went around half a mile down the river before climbing the cliff. This was the first time we’d done it alone, but we were confident we knew the way.
At first, everything went pretty well. We found a little trail and started towards the cliff ahead. But pretty soon I began to notice that this part of the forest wasn’t familiar. The trees were even closer together than usual, and even though the sun was by now high in the sky, it seemed dark.
Then the coyotes began howling. Though I knew they weren’t dangerous to humans, it was still eerie hearing them in the distance.
“Maybe we should go back,” I suggested.
“Nah,” Jade said. “We can still find the funnel. Let’s just get off this path. It should be like a mile west of here.”
“I’ll go first,” Mason said. “I’ve got a leather jacket and you don’t.”
When we left the path, I thought I heard the whispering, though it was hard to hear over the racket my cousin was making by breaking a path through the trees for us.
Finally, we reached a small stream bed, long since dried up yet not overgrown. A minute or two later we reached a funnel. We all knew instantly it wasn’t the one we were used to. It was smaller yet went further into the cliff face, more of a canyon than a tunnel. As we entered it I noticed something far up near the top, around two hundred feet above us. It was too far away to make out what it was, so I decided to climb a little way up the side of the other side of the canyon.
Meanwhile, Jade and Mason went farther into the canyon. I could hear them talking as I climbed as far up the wall as I could get. As I still couldn’t see what it was, I decided to take a picture with my phone. I pointed it and snapped the picture, deciding to see if my uncle, who was into photography, could somehow enhance it.
I started to climb down and tripped. I landed hard on the floor of the funnel, glad for my thick coat. I heard rustling in the bushes to my left and waited to hear the others laughing at my clumsiness. Yet no sound came.
“Guys?” I called.
“We’re up ahead,” Jade replied faintly.
I started to go after them, having to squeeze between the trees and under the bushes which clung stubbornly to the dirt floor of the funnel. Suddenly I had the feeling of being watched.
Again branches cracked. I wanted to turn and tell whoever it was to cut it out, but my body wouldn’t respond. I froze as the sounds grew closer and closer. The whispering increased in volume.
Then the spell was broken as Mason called my name. The frozen feeling disappeared and I turned, ready to confront whatever it was.
Nothing was there.
I hurried to join my cousins, who stood below the object on the funnel wall. From here it was apparent that it was a bit bigger than I was. Something dripped from it, leaving trails of dark liquid on the pale wall. Around it circled several ravens.
“Think that’s a nest?” Jade asked before I could tell them what had happened.
“Maybe,” Mason replied, shading his eyes.
We stayed there for a few moments, trying to make out what it was before growing bored.
“Race you to the entrance!” Mason called.
He ran off through the trees, ignoring the thorny bushes. Jade and I followed more slowly, knowing we couldn’t beat him.
Then, above the sound of our own footsteps, I became aware of a distant voice, rising and falling in some sort of haunting song. It sounded female, but there was something unnatural about it as if we were hearing a recording played backward.
“Do you hear that?” Jade asked.
We ran to the entrance of the funnel, where we met Mason.
“Did you hear singing?” I asked.
“No.” He replied. “What are you talking about?”
“Didn’t you hear anything?”
She shook her head. “No. We should head back.”
We were then confronted by a problem. We didn’t know exactly how to get back to the river without having to push our way through thorn bushes. Finally, we had no choice but to start moving. Mason led the way, pushing through thorns and bushes without a care. Jade and I followed more slowly, carefully avoiding the worst of the thorns.
After a few minutes, the two of us were separated from him. We found ourselves in a circle of thorn bushes with no easy way out.
“Mason!” I called.
He didn’t respond though he couldn’t have gotten more than ten feet ahead. We sat down, deciding he’d come back eventually. My feeling of unease began to grow.
Finally Jade spoke, voice small and quavering.
“I don’t think we’re alone.” She said.
I nodded, feeling my muscles begin to lock with fear. From the direction of the funnel came the sound of something pushing through the trees. Jade’s eyes met mine and I knew she could hear it too.
“We need to get out of here,” I said, eyeing the thorns which surrounded us.
For some reason, I had no idea how we’d gotten inside the little clearing.
The sounds were growing louder, along with the whispering. All at once I realized something. The voices had never been threatening me. They’d been trying to warn me.
I got to my feet and pulled Jade up.
“We’re leaving,” I said.
I pushed through the bushes, ignoring the stinging of the cuts the thorns left on my arms and face. Jade followed and we ran through the forest. At one point I tripped and Jade pulled me to my feet. Behind us, the sounds were growing closer and more urgent. The voices weren’t whispering anymore, they were screaming.
For what seemed like a thousand years we ran through the forest. Though it was only a mile, it felt like a hundred.
Finally, we ran out into the river, nearly knocking over Mason. The voices stopped, along with the crashing of whatever was pursuing us.
“Where were you?” He asked as we tried to catch our breath. “I’ve been calling for you for hours.”
“Hours?” I asked. “We weren’t apart for more than twenty minutes.”
He shook his head. “I was just about to go get help.”
I noticed that the sun, directly overhead when we’d left the funnel, was beginning to set.
Jade laughed, the sound a little too high.
“We must have looked dumb.” She said. “Running from nothing like that.”
“Nothing?” I asked.
“We must have just imagined it.”
“It was probably just some animal.”
We started walking back to camp, and soon I began to believe we’d imagined whatever had happened too. I heard the sound of the singing and ignored it, deciding I was imagining it again.
Then I noticed that the other two were looking at me in horror. They could hear it too.
We began running, not stopping until we reached the camp. When we told our story, the adults just laughed, blaming it on overactive imaginations. My uncle, who had been visiting the area since he was a child, claimed there was no second funnel.
We soon packed up and drove home. As it was late by the time we reached our hometown, I decided to spend the night with Jade and go to my house the following morning. While we were there, I remembered the picture I’d taken of the thing in the funnel. I asked my uncle to enhance it and he agreed.
“It’ll probably be a nest.” He said as he worked. “You probably disturbed the ravens, who decided to chase you off.”
I didn’t agree, though I didn’t say so.
“Oh, kids.” He continued with a smile. “I used to be like you. One time I remember thinking-”
He stopped, the smile disappearing instantly. He got up and backed away from the computer. Then he turned and ran for the phone.
Jade and I looked at the now enhanced picture. The thing was not a nest.
In fact, it was a body, headless like the birds we’d seen in the tree grove. Though the picture was still blurry, the jacket the figure wore was unmistakably black leather. On his feet was a pair of bright red converse.
Just then the doorbell rang.
“Girls!” My aunt called. “Mason is here!”
Credit: Roxanne Wilds