Goodnight Hollow, Missouri - A boy walked into the woods and no one worried. In those days, 5-year-olds skinned squirrels and giggled and a child could open a sow's throat with a single steady swipe. Before they were taught figures, daughters learned how to season steaming possum meat. Sons of slaves plowed the rocky soil and mothers bled to death in childbirth and if a little girl cut her finger, and the cut oozed green and the finger swelled, then her father measured the child and he started nailing together a tidy box of pine.
In the hidden hollows of Missouri's Ozark Mountains, which is where the boy lived, times were hard. It was 1903 and the boy had just turned 8, but there was game to hunt, hogs to butcher, and there was no pine box or preacher or slab of limestone to mark the boy's passing, because there was no boy. The woods had claimed him. Adults paid respect in private, on sagging elm porches, late at night, over lonely, guttering flames. They remembered the child's pale green eyes, the coonskin cap he always wore. They remarked that his stutter must have made his short childhood more difficult than most. Wives murmured to husbands that the missing boy was surely in a happier place, but what they remembered was that their own children had avoided the boy the way pack animals avoid the diseased and the crippled; that ever since the boy was born, he had carried in his downcast gaze something ghostly and damned.
Time passed, and when visitors from nearby Abesville and Reeds Spring and Chestnut Ridge found themselves walking in the woods where the boy had disappeared, they remembered beatings they had suffered when they were young and–worse–they suddenly recalled the welts they had left on their own children's flesh. They conjured visions of their little boys' and girls' quivering lips. Mothers looked up through the thick, fetid canopy toward a sunny and benign forgiveness they longed for but which the woods made them doubt, and they blinked back tears. Fathers heard the wind make ghastly, forlorn noises in the trees and the men felt cold, and then the strangers hurried out of the woods and after awhile, very few walked in those woods at all, though no one could explain exactly why. More time passed, and then the only reminder of what had happened was the way some of the stooped, white-haired waitresses at Gus's Diner, hard on State Highway 176, would squeeze their lips together whenever a family with a little boy with brown hair and pale green eyes would sit down at a table. And sometimes if the boy giggled, one of the ancient waitresses would have to take a cigarette break, and tourists would see her outside, sitting on a pine bench, her shoulders silently convulsing.
Then even the old waitresses died off and mountains of Oklahoma dust swirled over the land and noontime turned to night. The Great Depression came and engineers built Bagnell Dam and, later, developers carved Branson out of the state's blood-soaked red soil. Midwestern millionaires started flocking to The Lake of the Ozarks, and amidst violin-playing Japanese and joke-telling Russians and cigarette-shaped speedboats that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, people forgot about the little boy who walked into the woods and never came out.
Time passed, and men stood on the moon and a peanut farmer was elected President, and life wasn't as hard anymore, and a family from Eureka Springs, Arkansas, just across Missouri's southern border, drove north toward St. Louis to visit relatives. After an hour on the road, the father pulled over at a shady spot and announced to his wife and two children that The Gateway to the West could wait a couple of days, because they were going on a little adventure first. The kids groaned and the man's wife smiled a hidden smile–she was in on the plan and she loved her husband's belief in the healing properties of the outdoors.
The little girl, 5 years old, had long red hair and freckles and wore sandals with sunflowers separating her big and second toes. The brown-haired, green-eyed boy was wearing blue shorts and a blue T-shirt and blue sneakers. He had just turned 8. They were bareheaded, so mom slathered their faces with sunscreen while dad pulled backpacks and sleeping bags from the trunk.
Fifteen minutes into the woods, the boy cried out. He shouted that something had grabbed his hand and tried to pull him into the bushes. Dad chuckled and told the child that it was probably a branch–it was mid-April, and the woods were lush–and that even if it wasn't, if the boy stayed on the trail, none of the monsters in the woods could get to him, because wood monsters didn't like trails, and that outraged the boy, who said it wasn't just a branch, it was a skinny kid in a furry hat, and why did no one ever believe him, it wasn't fair! He said the skinny kid had been following them ever since they walked into the woods.
"He's right, I saw him, too," the little girl said, and the mother decided the children were hungry and it might be a good idea to stop and have some fruit and nuts. But the father thought that children should not be catered to–and that their fears should certainly not be indulged–so he insisted they walk another mile into the woods. The mother bit her lip and went along–starting an argument wouldn't help things–but she made sure she kept the kids in sight, because now she was sure her son and daughter were fatigued, too, and when they were hungry and tired, they tended to hit each other, and then, for no reason at all, she remembered hitting her little sister when she was barely old enough to talk, and she thought about the last argument they'd had, and before she knew it, she felt a sob lodged in her throat and she squeezed her eyes shut to get hold of herself. When she opened them, she caught a glimpse of movement in the bushes next to her son and she yelped, which made both kids scream.
Mom broke out the fruit and nuts, and the family sat in a tight little circle on the trail and no matter how much they ate, and no matter how many times the father told the kids about the great marshmallows they would roast that night, and how they would be able to look up and see stars, the kids wouldn't stop crying. Then the wind picked up, and the air got colder. Mom took her husband's hand and she squeezed it and she raised her eyebrows, and he knew what that meant. They walked back to the car and all of them felt something chilly and damp on the back of their necks, like something was watching them. Maybe next year they would sleep under the stars.
They drove a few minutes, around a bend, and stopped at Gus's Diner for lunch, and after mom and dad drank iced tea and discussed mom's no-good shiftless ex-husband and argued about how much time they had to spend with him and his sleazy, chain-smoking cocktail waitress girlfriend in St. Louis, the little boy said he was bored. "Take your sister and go look at the fish in the stream just outside the back door," the father said, because he wanted the kids to forget about the fright they'd had in the woods. Fifteen minutes later, after mom and dad had reached an uneasy peace about her no-good ex and his shiftless girlfriend–who had invited the whole family up to St. Louis for a let's-get-to-know-each-other-better visit, after all–a woman at another table screamed. The visitors from Eureka Springs looked up and there was their little girl, staring into the jukebox. She was barefoot, rocking back and forth, humming. Her parents thought an animal had climbed onto her head, but then they looked closer and saw it was just a ratty coonskin cap. But what had happened to her sandals? Why was she humming? Was that mud on her legs, and why was it red? And where was her big brother?
This time, the cops were called. Times had changed, even in the Ozarks, so of course sex offenders were interviewed. Television crews drove from Kansas City and Springfield and St. Louis, and the hoteliers and restaurateurs of nearby Branson refused to appear on camera, because a missing kid was terrible, but business was business. Then a newspaper editor in Columbia, in central Missouri, saw one of the spots about "Little Boy Blue," as the missing child had been dubbed, on the 5 p.m. KSDK news show from St. Louis, and it made her think of something. She had taken a class in "Rural Anthropology and Folklore" at the University of Missouri before she became a newspaperwoman, and the news reminded her of a lecture she had heard–an obscure tall tale about a mysterious little boy in a coonskin cap. That excited her, in the way that missing children and creepy coincidences excited newspaper editors, especially back then, in 1980, when newspapering was an exciting thing to do.
She pulled her ace cops reporter, a gregarious and chain-smoking Irishman named Kevin Gerrity who typed with two fingers, off his beat and told him to work the search angle hard. She took the statehouse reporter, a bookish second-generation Armenian named Edward Alouisious Dorian who wore heavily starched white shirts and spoke with a formality the other reporters snickered about, and whom they all called Deadline Ed behind his back, and she told him she wanted to know everything there was to know about the missing kid's family, that Deadline should pack a toothbrush and be in Eureka Springs by dinnertime. The editor wanted something on the creepy historical angle, too, and some local color on the woods and the rednecks who lived there, but the only person she had left to send anywhere was a cub reporter with an overactive imagination and a nasty drinking habit, a dreamy mope she had been thinking of firing almost since the day she had hired him.
That's where I come in.
I covered the animal beat. I wrote stories about trick pigs and clever ferrets. I covered jumping-frog contests and birthday parties for overweight cats. If there was a fire, and a pet, and survivors, it was my byline on the piece. ("Snuffy the rabbit smelled smoke and bleated–loud enough to wake Harold and Irma Flance. And in that magical moment, with that simple utterance, Snuffy was forever transformed from mere pet to beloved and immortal big-eared hero.")
Animals didn't talk, so I didn't have to interview them. Animals didn't sue, so I didn't have to worry too much about getting facts straight. The animal beat provided a safe place for a reporter like me, who, in his first two weeks on the job, had reported that a chamber of commerce director had been sued for sexual harassment when he hadn't, and who had shown up for work late and hungover four times. I had been at the Columbia Daily Tribune for just a year and was already, barely 25, a floridly failing journalist. I suspect that Carolyn "Sissy" White, the editor, was hoping I'd become so humiliated at writing about hamsters and puppies that I'd quit. She overestimated my sense of personal dignity.
"I want atmosphere," she said, after she'd summoned me to her office. "And leave out the telepathic Shih Tzus, okay?"
"Hey, c'mon, my Jim the Wonder Dog feature won second place in the Boone County Press Asso..."
"All I want is a mood piece. A mood piece with actual facts. No animals."
"Got it, boss. Can do."
"And no drinking. If I even suspect you've been juicing, you're going to wish you were writing about mind-reading squirrels. You think the animal beat's bad? I find out you're hitting the bottle, you're going to be interviewing farmers at the state fair about their prize-winning giant vegetables."
"Can do. Hold page one, above the fold," I said, and Sissy sighed.
I drove through long stretches of flat land and gray, hard sky. I had the road mostly to myself, plus the occasional hawk circling overhead and gangs of large black crows that descended, picked at some unlucky skunk's remains, then flapped heavily away. By the time I arrived at Gus's Diner, I needed a drink.
Instead, I ordered a burger and a cup of coffee. The waitress was slim and had pale blue eyes and I wondered if she had been working when the couple from Eureka Springs lost their son. The kid had been missing for only three days, but reporters from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Kansas City Star and the Springfield News-Leader had already been here, had filed big-city features filled with "hushed silence" and "rare locked doors" and "rural mystery" and all the other clichés that big-city reporters trot out when big, bad things happen in small towns. Then they had packed up, along with the cops and hunters and other volunteers who had searched every square inch of the nearby woods, and now it was just me. Me and the Formica tables, and knotty-wood walls, and in back a bald man in a dirty white T-shirt muttering and moving jars from shelf to shelf. I made a note to myself to find out what kind of wood the walls were made of. That would help with the atmosphere.
It was dusk, and the gravel parking lot was fading into nothingness and the only sounds were a gentle breeze slithering through the woods outside, and, occasionally, the whispery rubber of a car passing on the highway. When that happened, the bald man and the waitress would both look out the front window, and then–was it my imagination?–they would both check over their shoulders, toward the back of the restaurant, and the river, and the woods beyond.
"Best not go in there," the waitress said, jerking her head toward the back of the restaurant, toward the woods.
"Anything else?" she asked, in a normal, pleasant, I'm-just-a-waitress-and-not-some-hillbilly-from-a-horror-movie voice.
"Don't go in where? Why? What's going on?" I asked.
She stared at me.
I noticed her looking at the counter and I followed her gaze. She was gazing at my hands, which were trembling.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
"Yeah, yeah, fine, I'm fine," I lied. I told her I was down for some rest and relaxation, and that I was looking for a place to stay.
"Only place to stay around here is Gus's," she said.
"I thought this was Gus's."
"This is Gus's Diner. I mean Gus's Hotel, a hundred feet up the highway, just 'round that corner. Easy to miss, so look out for the sign," she said.
The peeling sign said "rooms available" and I asked for one.
"A-yup," said Gus, or Gus's employee, as he pulled a key from a wooden slot behind him. Knotty pine? Walnut? Elm? I would have to check that out.
"Pretty country here," I said.
"Sometimes," said Gus.
"People go hiking around here?"
Gus looked like he had just eaten a piece of bad squirrel meat.
"You plannin' to go into the woods, mister?" Gus asked.
"Maybe," I said.
"Not so smart."
"Why do you say that, Gus?"
"Ain't Gus," he said.
"You're not Gus?"
He spat something behind the counter. "Ain't no Gus," he said. "Ain't been no Gus for a long time. People call me BC." I didn't sleep well that night. It was the noise from the woods. It was the river gurgling, and twigs rustling, and the wind through the trees, and creaking. It was a hiss and crack that made me think of a bullwhip snapping, and a low, soft moaning. It was a thin, reedy, animal-like whimpering that haunts me to this day, an eerie and primal noise that I wish I would have listened to more closely. If I had, if I had been able to comprehend what the thing in the woods was saying, would things have turned out differently?
"Huh huh huh," the thing from the woods cried. "Huh huh huh huh."
It sounded like a person, urgently alive, and yet there was something inhuman about it, too, something older than the sky, sadder than the wind. Or maybe this was what the Ozarks sounded like?
I called the newsroom the next morning.
"What have you got?" Sissy asked.
I didn't mention the sounds.
"Great stuff," I lied. "Lots of local color, and some fascinating characters. Plus, some local mysteries. There's a place called Gus's, without a Gus, and a restaurant where the waitress and the dishwasher–or maybe he's the owner–look at the woods every time a car goes by and..."
"Have you been drinking?"
"No, I told you I was done with..."
"Have you even left the hotel and the place you've been eating?"
"You said you wanted a mood piece, right? I'm gathering mood."
"Where was the last place the kid was seen?"
"He was walking out of the diner, toward the river."
"And what's next to the river?"
I didn't like where this conversation was going. I didn't like it at all.
"The woods?" I said. It came out as a question.
"You planning to go there?"
"Well, of course I'm planning to..."
"Call me by the end of the week," she said. "You better have a story about camping out where the kid disappeared."
I walked to the diner.
When the blue-eyed waitress brought me my pancakes, I asked if I could ask her a question.
"You're a reporter," she said. "Isn't that what you do?"
"How'd you know I was a reporter?"
"Everyone around here knows you're a reporter. Since that poor child went missing, that's the only people been coming round here. Ain't no tourists anymore. Certainly not any families."
"Yeah, I'm a reporter. Have you heard anything about what might have happened to the ki... to the little boy?"
"Probably got lost in the woods. It happens."
"You're funny, Mr. Reporter," she said. "You think you're going to find that little boy, do you?"
"No, I'm just here to do a moo... I mean, to write something about the area. You know any place within a few miles that might sell trail maps?"
I heard a sharp hacking noise and looked into the back of the restaurant. There was the dishwasher/owner/bald/hairy-armed guy, bent over and coughing. Or laughing.
"No trail maps around here," Blue Eyes told me. "You want to know about trails, or anything to do with those woods, you need to talk to Mrs. Loomis, the retired librarian who lives down in Goodnight Hollow, not far from Walnut Shade."
I pictured a gray-haired, muffin-faced crone. I saw piles of knitting needles and gangs of house cats.
"How do I get in touch with her?"
"You don't have to," the waitress said. "I already did."
I drove through patches of blinding sun and shade dark as night. I saw the hand-lettered sign for County Road EE, and pulled off the pot-holed, single-lane pavement onto what looked like a driveway, but was another paved road. That gave way to gravel and the gravel to dirt. The dirt was hard-packed, and up ahead smoke curled out of a brick chimney. Dead petunias were scattered on the side of a white frame house.
She had braces and slim ankles, and the rest of her was covered in a long navy blue skirt and an expensive-looking black cashmere sweater. She could have been 35, or 45. She turned the corners of her mouth up and showed just a little bit of metal and tooth, but I wouldn't call it a smile. She had brown bangs as fashionable as any magazine model, and they framed high cheekbones and hazel eyes. In the white of her left eye was a popped blood vessel that made a tiny explosion of red, perfectly matching her lipstick.
"Can I help you with something?"
"I'm the reporter," I said.
"Uh," I said, "the one who's reporting the disappearance of the little boy?"
She coughed. Or was she stifling a giggle?
"Oh, yes," she said. "Beatrice called me about you. I've been out of sorts. I had meant to have some things to show you, but my prints were late, and, well, you can imagine. Can I get you something to drink? English Breakfast Tea? Coffee?"
She turned, did something to a vase on a table. The hair that should have fallen over the back of her neck had been hacked off.
She turned again, put her hands on her hips and smiled. Her eyes were like marbles–lovely, cold, and lifeless.
"What do you think?" she asked, flouncing what hair was left.
"It's great," I lied.
"You're lying, but that's okay." Before I could answer, she'd taken my hand and pulled me toward the kitchen. "Let's have some tea before we talk," she said.
I told her tea would be fine, as I wondered what had been getting her out of sorts, besides disappearing children and spooky woods. I also wondered what prints she was talking about, and what a nice-looking woman with braces and tea was doing living in the muddy backwoods. And where was Mr. Loomis?
"You like being a reporter?" she asked, as we sat down.
"Yeah, for the most part," I said. I didn't mention Jim the Wonder Dog or Snuffy the Miracle Rabbit.
"Have you found the little boy yet?"
"No, and I'm not going to. I'm not here to find the lit..."
"What if I could lead you to him?"
Maybe that's the moment I should have called the local cops, or at least checked in with Deadline Ed, or Kev. Maybe I should have called Sissy. And maybe if I had done any of that, things wouldn't have turned out how they did. I've always pondered the maybes of my life. It's never helped.
"Lead me to him? Sure, lead me to him. Right. Let's go."
She took my hand and pulled me out the back door. Black clouds had piled upon each other and they sat, bullying and sullen, on the western horizon. We walked around the farmhouse, to a small path in the woods that abutted the backyard. My shirt stuck to my back. Streaks of lightning cut through the clouds, but I heard no thunder.
She walked ahead of me.
"My ex said I was hallucinating," she said. "He told me no one lived in the woods, that it was just coyotes. He told me I was hearing what I wanted to hear."
She said this in the same tone of voice she'd used to tell me that she was waiting on her prints. I looked at the back of her haircut. What was the deal with that? That's when I heard the huh-huh-huh sound again.
We had walked 50 yards down the path. What had seemed like a cute little trail had turned into an overgrown, weed-choked passage into a dark, dank jungle. I knew there couldn't be a jungle in mid-Missouri. I knew that the huh-huh-huh couldn't be a monster's growl, that it was more likely the mating grunt of some smallish Ozarks rodent. In a minute, Mrs. Loomis would show me the animal and I would note its fuzzy ears and its cute wet nose and its funny little paws. It would help my mood piece.
Sweat dripped into my eyes. The jungle was getting darker, and more dank. The huh-huh-huh was getting louder. This was more mood than I needed.
After a quarter-mile, the trail ended at a small pile of ash, what looked like a rudimentary barbecue pit, at the northern tip of an oblong clearing 20 feet by 15 feet.
I saw blood. I smelled meat.
The wind had picked up. I thought I heard animals chattering and shrieking. I tried to get a fix on the clouds, but the horizon had disappeared. We were deep in the forest. Fat, cold drops of water fell on us. I had never felt such heavy rain.
"Huh-huh-huh-huh," the woods cried. I heard movement in the bushes.
She grasped my hand again. When I turned toward her, she was peering into the woods. I followed her eyes and thought I saw a flash of fur, a shy, greenish quivering.
"What's that?" I croaked.
"What's what?" she said.
"In the woods."
She turned to me. What was the expression on her face? Amusement? Regret? Despair?
"It's okay," she said.
"Everything will be okay. Don't worry."
She took my face in her hands. They were like ice. I couldn't remember why I was here. Why had we come this way? Why was she looking at me so strangely? The rain continued, heavy as sin, loud as a guilty conscience. Cutting through the sound of rain, something worse. Something remorseless: "Huh-huh-huh-HUH."
There was rattling behind the tree, then primal, urgent moaning.
"We'd better go," she said. "Leave him be."
A wave of dizziness overwhelmed me. I clung to her hand. I followed her down the path, out of the woods.
The next morning, after a fitful, sleepless night, as I was walking through the lobby on my way to the diner, BC looked up from behind the desk, then thrust a lumpy brown envelope into my hands. There were no stamps and no return address. Scrawled across the front of the envelope, in what looked like brown chalk, was "Reporter." The printing had been done by someone old and arthritic. Or a kindergartner.
I asked BC where it had come from and he gave me the bad squirrel meat look again.
"No idea. It was leaning against the door this morning."
When I opened it, a puff of dust floated out and settled on the counter, just missing my flapjacks. Inside I found a black, leather-bound notebook, 8 1/2 by 11, thin as a hymnal at a failing church. In faded red type, across the cover: "Oral Traditions and Folk Lore among the Early Settlers of the Missouri Ozarks."
I read chapter one, The Weeping Woman, the tale of a gray-haired wraith in a nightgown who wandered the hollows and hillsides, pitifully calling for her baby, who had died from smallpox decades earlier. In chapter two, I met The Old Man of the Ozarks, a petty thief who was imprisoned for vagrancy and then, when the town jail was torn down as part of some ill-conceived urban renewal program, was promptly forgotten, and lived out his years trapped in the rubble, feeding only on rats and cockroaches and the occasional small child who got too close to the condemned property. I flipped through other ghost stories, skimmed legends, and read more nonsense of the sort that has brought shudders of delight to every kid who has ever spent a night at sleepover camp.
I passed the morning shoveling forkfuls of Bea's excellent pancakes into my mouth, drinking her strong coffee and enjoying the exploits of The McDonald County Backbreaker, The Stranger at The Door, and The Man with the Hook. I met The James Strangler, the slithery and lithe creature who lurked at the bottom of the nearby James River, and wriggled and writhed until curious fishermen waded in after it–only to be found later washed up on the shore, terror in their empty, staring eyes (in some versions of the tale, their brains had been sucked out through the ears).
As I mopped up syrup, I chuckled and felt myself relax. The missing kid from Eureka Springs was sad, of course, tragic even, but it wasn't my job to find him. My role was simply to write something evocative. If there's one thing an animal beat guy needs to be good at, it's evocative. These stories from this odd little book would help.
I was going to give the Tribune readers a mood piece, all right. I would etch some portraits of BC, and Beatrice the sexy waitress, and certainly the whackjob of a librarian. I'd throw in The Old Man of the Ozarks, too. I would describe the knotty-pine walls (or maple, or whatever they turned out to be). I would leave out the bloody meat in the ashes, and the crying I heard in the woods at night, because no one would believe that stuff. Plus, for the purposes of authorial credibility, I needed to maintain a certain flinty-eyed persona. So definitely no huh-huh-huhs. But mood? Oh, yeah. With a capital M.
I returned to the book, read in the afterward how tall tales had been part of the Ozarks culture for as long as anyone could remember, how "these tales have been handed down for generations, used as instructional devices to impart lessons about human nature and to dissuade children from socially unacceptable and risky activity."
I asked Bea for more coffee. The spooky yarn as pedagogy? Interesting. I sped through the stories again. The weeping woman wasn't just a scary old hag; she provided a cautionary example of what happened to someone who failed to come to terms with grief, who could not let go of a loved one who had died. The Old Man of the Ozarks? More than a crotchety old cannibal, he was the bogeyman who kept kids from deserted buildings. And any little boy or girl who heard about The James Strangler would surely not get too close to the river's edge.
I was composing the lede in my head–"If you want a long life for your kids, you might consider scaring the wee ones to death"–when I noticed something sticking out of the back of the book. It was a single sheet of single-spaced paper, yellowed and crackling. Typed across the top of the sheet, "The Curious and Disturbing Case of Ukiah Clemons."
I read it while I drank more coffee. The story was different from the others. It read more like a police report than a tall tale. There was no obvious anthropological value in the text. And, according to the property records attached, there definitively was a Ukiah Clemons. He was the fourth oldest of eight, the son of a blacksmith. By the only accounts that could be trusted–and there weren't many of those–the Clemons family was, like many rural Missouri clans of that era, poor and fiercely, desperately invested in survival. The blacksmith was a moonshiner and drunk who barely made ends meet.
His wife was high-strung, prone to long bouts of silence interrupted by episodes of screaming and minor violence, always directed at one child or another. There was chronic sickness and relentless hunger. Young Ukiah was a lonely child, and other schoolchildren shunned him. It might have been because he tended to cling to his mother's skirts, or because he wept easily. It might have been because he was always so hungry; other children reported seeing him in the woods at all hours, digging in the dirt, at times chewing on wriggling, squealing things that looked like squirrels, or snakes he hadn't even bothered to kill. People said that when Ukiah's father discovered the boy eating a snake in bed one night, he tied him to a tree and used his bullwhip. After that night, people said, Ukiah stuttered. He stuttered until the day he disappeared.
"The exact date that Ukiah walked into the woods is still disputed," the paper said. "What is beyond doubt–from school records, from tax rolls and from birth and death certificates–is that after his eighth birthday, there was never a documented sighting of him again."
According to the yellowing paper, some stories said he didn't even make it to the woods. One account had him dying at home of pneumonia. Another legend had him bleeding to death from wounds suffered at his father's bullwhip. The most grisly account presented Ukiah, mad from hunger, suffocating and then cutting up and eating his baby sister, then being chased into the woods by his mother, who hung herself from a weeping sumac tree that very night.
I heard a clattering noise from the counter and looked down. My hands were shaking again. I dropped my fork and continued reading.
"Why such a gruesome and apparently pointless narrative has endured for so long," wrote the nameless author of the paper, "and why it still pops up from time to time, is a mystery greater than the fate of Ukiah himself."
I stuck the paper back in the book and walked back to the hotel. Had the insane librarian dropped the book off? Was the waitress playing a joke on me? Back at the hotel, BC informed me that a woman named Sissy had called me five times this morning, that it was urgent I call her back.
I walked up the steps to my room and started making notes for my mood piece. Maybe I would use the strange sounds in the woods. "The eerie moans have haunted visitors to this area for decades," I wrote. That was probably true. I described the flapjacks, "friendly, hearty, reassuring fare that offers stark contrast to the terrible mystery that occurred down by the river and through the woods." I had a lot, but I needed more. I knew that if I didn't spend a night in the woods, I'd be back on the animal beat faster than someone could say "Pork chop city for the trick pig." I didn't plan to call Sissy back until I'd returned from the wilderness and my piece was ready.
I walked back down to the desk, asked BC where I could hire a guide to take me camping.
"I can do it today," he told me.
An hour later, a little after noon, we drove toward the librarian's house. After 20 minutes, just when I wondered with a chill whether he was taking me back to the chattering thing by the ash pit, BC jerked his wheel and we lurched left and into the undergrowth. Dark branches whipped the windshield and I might have squealed, or screamed, because BC said, "Hold on now." We drove another 30 minutes, though "drove" isn't the right word, because most of the time we were bumping and lurching. We stopped long after we had left anything that anyone might refer to as a road. The air was thick and sour, and all around was a low insect whine. This was way too much mood.
I got out and sunk to my shins in muck. BC reached into the bed of his pickup and grabbed two backpacks.
"Here," he said, throwing one at me. "Put this on."
We walked for at least two hours. We walked up muddy hills and across streams, and we walked through patches of witch hazel and clouds of blackflies. We stopped at a treeless patch of dirt, a rough circle surrounded by closely packed dogwood and maple trees.
"I'll set up camp here," BC said. "Why don't you relax?"
I sat down heavily.
"I'm thirsty," I said.
"I got something," BC said. "But first we gotta eat. It's dangerous to be hungry out here."
I vaguely remembered reading that people could live a long time without food, that in fact it was riskier to be thirsty. But BC seemed to know what he was doing, so I leaned on my backpack, and the next thing I knew, BC was shaking my shoulder and it was dark. He had a fire going, was stirring two cans with a stick.
"Grub's ready," he said.
"What's that sound?" I asked. The rhythm was a woodpecker's, but the tone more human. It sounded like the Huh-huh-huh at the librarian's house, but now it said, "Duh-duh-duh-Doe, duh-duh-duh-Doe." It came from deep in the woods, from the direction we had hiked in from. Is this what sobriety was like? Was I going to be hearing that damned noise as long as I didn't drink?
BC looked at me and snickered.
"Lots of sounds in the woods, boy," he said. "Here, eat up." He thrust a can of pork and beans at me.
I didn't like how he had called me "boy," but I was ravenous. I hadn't realized how ravenous until I smelled the pork and beans. I ate until my stomach hurt.
"Can we have some water now?" I asked. I couldn't remember ever being so thirsty.
"Got something better," BC said, and thrust a plastic bottle filled with yellowish liquid into my hand. "Take a pull on this, you won't worry about no mountain sounds."
I took a drink and spat it out.
"I don't drink alcohol anymore," I said.
"Better start," BC said.
I was angry for just a moment. He didn't know any better. And I was thirsty. And no one ever needed to know about tonight. It was just me and BC and the noise, the Duh-duh-duh-Doe. Maybe a couple of swigs would make it shut up. I took a pull from the bottle and suddenly the woods seemed safer and softer. I took another pull and another, and I decided that life was good, and the Ozarks were a rugged but wonderful place, and that I would definitely ask the blue-eyed waitress out on a date when I had flapjacks tomorrow. I resolved that Beatrice and I might make a life together. I decided that we deserved a life together. I had another pull and the Duh-duh-duh-Doe turned into a scream, a relentless, urgent scream, but I couldn't be bothered with it. Why had I ever stopped drinking? Every swig made me more relaxed, and happy, and I was definitely a boozer again, and I wondered why I had ever thought I wasn't a boozer and I took another pull and I was going to clap BC on the back and thank him for being such a good hotel manager, and faithful guide, for being my friend, and then I passed out.
I woke in a puddle of vomit. I could see the glowing embers of the dying fire, but BC wasn't on his bedroll. My eyes adjusted to the darkness. I saw a shape at the edge of the fire circle. It was BC and he was doing something on a rock. It looked like he was sharpening a knife.
DUH-DUH-DUH-DOE! The noise was behind me and I turned, startled. It was a strangled cry. Now I saw a light, too. The light was dancing, in the same location as the cry. I looked back at BC, but he kept doing what he was doing. I wasn't drunk anymore, and I wasn't stupider than usual. Asking for BC's help might have been my most reasonable next move. Staying put would have made sense, too. I wish I could tell you why I followed the light into the woods, but I can't. All I can tell you is that I did follow it.
I crawled on my belly for 50 yards.
When my head bumped into a log, I stood up. I didn't feel hungover. I didn't feel quite sober either. I felt like I was floating, like I had spent my life in these woods. I followed the light over hills and through ravines. My feet must have hit the ground, but I couldn't feel them. It was more like I was leaping, or dancing. As I moved, I breathed, and as I breathed, I could feel the woods breathe. I was one with the woods, and with the thing I was following. As I was floating through the woods, I heard eating sounds–I don't know how else to describe them. Lip-smacking, chewing, tearing exclamations, and wet grunts, and soft sobbing. I don't know how long I followed the sounds and the light, only that the embers from the campfire were long out of sight before I came to another clearing, one we had not passed before. Now the sound was everywhere. The eating, and the sobbing, and the screaming. Then slobbering and then the scream again and then it was deafening, a shrill, witless bawling.
I knew that the sounds were impossible. Maybe hitting my head on the log had affected my hearing. I shook my head, but the sounds grew louder. At the clearing, I realized the sounds weren't all around me–they were coming from the edge of the woods on the other side of the treeless circle. I walked into the clearing, and the light on the other side didn't move. I saw a shape in front of the light. The noise was coming from the shape.
I moved closer. It wasn't tall enough to be a bear, but it was upright. It had to be a wolf, or some kind of feral dog, on its hind legs, with its forelegs resting on some slim branch I couldn't see. But it was so skinny... so bony, like an undersized, malnourished chimpanzee, or ground sloth. Its head was shaking from side to side, chewing. Was it looking at me?
I moved closer. Its head was large and angular, and covered with fur, and its eyes were moist and ravenous.
I moved closer still and saw that the fur covered only the head, and that the face was pink, and that the forelegs weren't leaning on anything. They were holding something. And they weren't forelegs. They were arms, covered in ragged, torn scraps of cloth.
I moved closer, until I was only 10 feet away. Closer.
It couldn't be. It couldn't possibly be.
"DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH-DOE," the little boy said.
I stopped breathing.
It could not be a little boy. It could not be a little boy holding a kerosene lamp. I told myself I would never ever ever drink again.
"DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH-DOE," the little boy said. He put down the kerosene lamp. He was wearing a coonskin hat. There was something wrong with his mouth, something messy. I should have run. I should have screamed. But I did nothing. I was one with the woods. I couldn't feel my feet. The boy walked closer. I realized what was wrong with his mouth; his lips were smeared with blood. He was holding something wet and dripping.
"DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH-DOE," the boy screamed.
"What?" I said, and he moved toward me and I saw what he was holding. It was a hand, a tiny little fist, a baby's fist. Two fingers had already been chewed off.
"DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH DON'T TRUST HIM," the little boy cried. "Duh-Duh-duh DON'T TRUST THE BAD MAN WITH THE KNIFE." And then the little boy reached out his hand and he took mine and his hand was colder than death, slick with blood. "I-I-I-I'm your fuh-fuh-fuh-fuh-friend!" he bawled.
I heard a high, keening wail, an awful shriek of pain, and terror. The little boy in the coonskin cap stared at me with dead eyes, and the shrieking wouldn't stop, and then I realized the shrieking was coming from me.
A large man with the sad, liquid eyes of an otter slapped me.
"What?" I tried to say, but what came out was "Wulb!"
"He's alive," the man said, then wrote on a clipboard.
"Wuh-wuh-wuh-wulb?" I said.
I was at the Cox Medical Center, the doctor told me, in Springfield. Fishermen headed to the James River had found me at dawn, passed out at the edge of Highway 176. They had brought me here. Doctors suspected alcohol poisoning, which turned out to be true, but when they ran tests, they also found large amounts of Ibogaine, a powerful hallucinogen used by certain tribes in South America. They also found LSD, horse tranquilizers, Ecstasy, and methamphetamines.
I thought of BC and the drink he had given me.
"You're lucky you're alive," the otter-eyed doctor told me. "Having fun with happy pills at home's one thing, but in the woods? That's plain dumb."
"But," I tried to say, but what came out was "Blib."
After he left, a nurse came in and whispered to me.
"Your girlfriend's been calling," she said. "She sounds angry."
"Why haven't you been returning my calls?" Sissy said, when I got her on the phone. "I've been calling you for two days! We found him."
"What? Who? No, I found him. He..."
"Little Boy Blue, you boozing, animal-loving, mood-piece-happy idiot! He never disappeared into the woods. His mom's ex snatched him. Kevin's source in the highway patrol fed him the inside dope, told him everything. And Deadline got the cops in Eureka Springs to fill in the gaps. The ex's cocktail-waitress girlfriend wanted a kid, but she wasn't so keen on being pregnant. She convinced the ex that kidnapping was a great solution. So they invited Little Boy Blue and his sister and their folks to St. Louis, then hired one hillbilly from Branson to trail the car and to call another hillbilly to grab the kid when he saw a chance. He saw the chance when the kids were playing by the stream outside Gus's Diner. It was the second hillbilly's idea to smear raccoon blood on the little girl and tell her if she said anything, he'd come back and snatch her, too. He took her shoes, too, so she wouldn't get back to the restaurant as fast."
My head hurt. My eyes hurt. My feet hurt. I wanted to stop hurting. I wondered what time it was. I wondered if there was a bar nearby.
"And the coonskin hat?"
"Weird thing about that. No one knows where that came from. After the boy was found, the little girl kept babbling about a stuttering child in the woods, how he was hungry but didn't want to hurt anyone. She said he gave her the hat. She kept crying and yelling to the cops that they had to go back and save the kid. Finally, a paramedic gave her a sedative to shut her up. She'll probably sleep for a week."
I would find the bar, and I would treat myself to a beer, and I would drink until I didn't hurt anymore. I would remind myself that scared little girls make up stories every day and that hallucinogenic drugs make even flinty-eyed reporters imagine things, and I would drink some more and I would go back to school and I would become an accountant. I would drink lots and lots of beer.
"So Little Boy Blue's okay?"
"Yep. Home sweet home. A pizza delivery guy saw his picture on the news and spotted him at the ex's house. The ex and his shifty galpal are going away for a long, long time. Deadline Ed says the cops are still looking for the first hillbilly. But Kev's working on a piece about how they arrested the second one yesterday, the snatcher. They caught him in the woods near Goodnight Hollow. A nasty piece of work, that one. Top suspect in five or six murders down there in Deliveranceland, but they never had enough evidence to convict him. He liked knives, though, everyone knows that. It's funny, huh?"
"Funny? What's funny?"
"A psycho like that, with all those knives, running a hotel."
I thought I was going to throw up.
"What did you say his name was?"
"His first name?"
"Balthazar, though everyone down there called him BC."
I shut my eyes, saw the man by the rock, backlit by fire. I saw the man in the woods, hunched over a rock, sharpening his knife. The bad man.
"Hey!" Sissy snapped. "Are you still there? Or are you tripping your juicehead wonderdog skull off?"
"No, I mean yeah. I'm still here."
I could hear her sigh.
"Right. Sure you are. The nurse told me all about your pharmaceutical celebration in the trees. I wish I could say I was surprised. Get your ass back to town. We got a kids' turtle race that needs to be written up. And then it's time for the state fair and the Biggest Pumpkin in Boone County contest. Guess who's covering it?"
Kev and Deadline won state reporting awards for their Little Boy Blue coverage and got raises. Sissy spiked my mood piece. She told me no one cared about local legends, or spooky dishwashers, or librarians with emotional problems. (It turns out that Mrs. Loomis was bipolar, that after she miscarried, which led to her divorce, she started seeing forest children and was institutionalized briefly, and that shortly before the kid from Eureka Springs was grabbed, the librarian had gone off her meds and joined a coven of Wiccans. That explained the dead flowers and the haircut.)
Back on the beat where I had always belonged, I wrote a story about a singing guinea pig named Tess and its owner, a stockbroker I referred to as "jolly and portly, if a slight bit socially retarded." How was I supposed to know that Tess's owner was country-club buddies with the Tribune publisher? The publisher had a talk with Sissy, who, when it came to the subject of me, didn't need much talking to. Sissy called me into her office on a bright, spring Friday afternoon, a full year after my trip to the Ozarks.
"As the great poet wrote," she said, "April is the cruelest month."
"Huh," I said, and then she told me that even though I'd always struggled with facts, she liked my way with words and admired my imagination and wished me nothing but the best. Then she told me to clean out my desk.
I took a road trip, because I didn't know what else to do. I pointed my car toward Northern California, where I had always imagined quiet, friendly little streams and springy meadows and people with good skin and strong handshakes, but somehow I ended up behind a plate of flapjacks and a steaming cup of coffee, next to a twisting stream, hard on Missouri State Highway 176. A little voice had been whispering to me ever since the otter-eyed doctor had wakened me, telling me to slow down, telling me that if I wanted happiness, happiness was waiting for me, that peace was slinging hash, that serenity had blue eyes and that her name was Beatrice. As usual, the little voice was feeding me a line.
Bea and I dated for a few months, until she told me she was sick to death of the country, and of the Ozarks, and she wanted to move to the big city, and what was wrong with me, and would I ever grow up and stop looking for things that never were?
I don't know if I ever did. I don't know if I ever have.
Little Boy Blue was lost, and then he was found, and now he's an adult, older than I was when I walked into the woods and the woods claimed me. You don't know about him because he stopped doing interviews a long time ago. He wants people to forget about him. I don't blame him.
Sometimes I wish I could forget about him. I'm different now. The world is different. Things have changed, even in the hidden hollows of southern Missouri. Millionaires still haul their fancy speedboats to the Lake of the Ozarks, and they tie up together and drink too much and the girls take off their shirts but now you can see it all on the Internet.
Missing kids–especially cute white ones–are gone for an hour now and you can see them on the Internet, too. The only people who walk into the Ozarks' hidden hollows these days wear Gore-Tex. Many carry mesh baskets and hunt for morel mushrooms and ginseng, which they sell to the fancy restaurants where the millionaires like to eat and where possum meat's not on the menu. Gus's Hotel is gone, and there's a Wal-Mart where it used to be. The diner's a parking lot. If a 5-year-old skinned a squirrel, he'd probably get his own reality TV show. No one writes mood pieces anymore.
I think about my failed mood piece sometimes. I think about BC, too, and once or twice a month I call the Missouri State Penitentiary, in Jefferson City, to make sure he's still locked up, and to see when his next parole hearing is, so that I can drive to The Big House, which is what folks here call the institution, and suggest it not be granted. I think about Bea, too. More often than I'd like to admit, if you want the truth. I think about her late at night, when I'm lying in bed. But I don't ever talk about her. That wouldn't be the right thing to do, not to Rachael. That's Mrs. Loomis's first name. Rachael and I have been living together for 30 years now, in the house at the end of the gravel road, just a few miles from Walnut Shade, next to the James River, deep in the shadows of Goodnight Hollow.
I'm a middle-aged man now, recently retired from 29 years of teaching fifth grade. I haven't had a drink since that last pull of drug-laced moonshine in the clearing, next to the fire. Rachael takes her meds and I go to AA meetings and we read local history books together and we sit on lawn chairs on the banks of the James River and we fish and our sun-freckled shoulders touch. Sometimes on a warm spring afternoon we drive up to St. Louis, to take in a Cardinals game and to sit on the hood of our cherry-red Buick Skylark afterward and breathe in the city smells while we slurp our vanilla milkshakes at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard Stand on Grand Avenue. And when we get home, while I'm inside measuring coffee for the morning and tidying up, Rachael makes a trip to the little ash mound down the path behind the house. She calls it her "constitutional." I followed her once, many years ago, to see what she was doing and I saw her gently place a raw chicken, still bloody and freshly butchered, on the little pile of ashes. That was the last time I followed her. I think of Bea and BC and baseball games and frozen custard late at night, when Rachael is sleeping and I'm trying not to think of other things. I try not to think about the thing I saw in the woods, the thing I couldn't possibly have seen. I try not to think about the baby's fist with the missing fingers. I try not to think about the terrible fate of that little boy from another time.
Trying not to think about things keeps a man awake at night. It keeps me awake. So do the sounds, the sounds from the woods next to the river. They're still there, the rustling and the creaking, the sighing of the wind. Sometimes, in the stillness of the predawn darkness, I tell myself that I've grown used to them. But then the silence will be broken–by soft weeping, by the fierce whisper of the whip, by a low, soft moaning.
"Huh-huh-huh," the reedy, haunted voice says, and then louder, "HUH-HUH-HUH" and I don't even bother to put a pillow over my ears, because I know it won't help.
"HUH-HUH-HUH-HUNGRY!" the lost little boy screams. And then comes the rattling in the woods, the urgent scuttling. There is a tearing and chewing as the ghostly, damned thing in the woods falls upon its bloody sustenance, and then there is a horrible, savage slurping and then an ecstatic lip-smacking.
Silence comes next, and I always wish it would go on forever, but it never does. After the silence comes a sigh, night after night, week after week, decade after endless decade, a sigh lonelier than the wind, sadder than the ageless river. And then, after the sigh, comes the last thing I hear every night, before I finally fall into an uneasy sleep. It is the sound of death, and the horror that follows.
"Fuh-fuh-fuh friends," the lost little boy says. "Muh-muh-muh my friends."
Writer-at-large Steve Friedman actually did, many years ago, write a story about Jim the Wonder Dog for the Columbia Daily Tribune. Unlike Neville Franks, he never dated a waitress named Beatrice.