NEAR NAPLES, FL – 1991
The tapping began one heavy July evening,
almost two months after my eleventh birthday and about a year before we moved
out of Florida.
I first heard it in the bathroom and
assumed, given our house’s history, that it was another bout of plumbing
indigestion. Likely sink water gurgling through. Or the shower dripping. But
in consciously stopping to listen there was no mistaking the metallic
thunk of the drainage pipe being struck in the sideyard. Glancing out the
window solved nothing; I didn’t really expect it to. Encompassed by an
abundant froth of greenery, the woods at night was one big apocalyptic
As a child, I was not exactly gifted (or
burdened) with an overstock of imagination, and so I let the noise be, my
developing science-mind assuming it nothing but rocks in the gutter or some
rambunctious bugs or animals.
But it seemed to grow louder. Bigger. I
heard it from several different areas and always at night, usually late – one
time it even woke me up. There was nothing predictable about it; I think it
happened arbitrarily four or five times in the span of a few weeks, and it
never lasted very long. After the first two or so incidents my parents took
notice and they began to think, as I did, that someone was throwing rocks at
the house, using the cover of darkness to conceal best they could their
launching point. Thankfully none of the ammunition struck a window.
"It's definitely rocks," my dad said one
night at dinner, not twenty-four hours after another small barrage on the
outside of the den. “I’m noticing clumps of them around the house, near where
there’s some nicks and dents in the wood.”
Initially I was the prime suspect. Not me
personally, of course, but they asked if I’d made any enemies at school, or
if some bully had found out my address and was trying to scare me. I said I
couldn’t think of anyone who’d be doing such a thing, or why. My parents
talked to our nearest neighbors but no one else reported similar
circumstances, nor had they seen anyone armed with rocks slinking through the
tangled wet bush that permeated town.
“Too bad Comet ain’t around to sniff ‘em
out,” Dad said, referring to the dog we’d had since before I was born who was
put to sleep earlier that year. It was a subtle but salient observation –
Comet’s absence made us feel more vulnerable, even if he’d largely retired
from guard duty the last year of his life.
We all knew the obvious solution would be
vigilance, to keep ears open, keep the sheriff on call or somehow stake out
for the perpetrator, all of which could prove difficult of course given the
randomness of it.
But you know, there was something else,
too. We never spoke of it – at least, I never heard either Mom or Dad speak
of it, but there was a baseless, outsized terror associated with these
rocks that was wild and everywhere, amorphous and silent but undeniably
strong. I was scared to step outside at night. And my father, while a proudly
individualistic third-generation Southerner, had little room on his broad
face to hide the irrational fear that grew there, his eyes the first to
showcase for me that look, that toxic flame I would see numerous times in
personal interviews later in my adult life. While not directly encountered,
towards the simian cellar of our brains we knew something was going on,
something that made its presence felt behind the rocks, powerful enough to
enflame the African-savannah instincts of a comfortable American rural
family. This had me both terribly anxious and anticipatory of whatever was to
come, even if much of me expected it to subside without any resolution.
That wasn’t exactly the case here.
“Something smelled bad last night,” Mom
said one morning.
“The trash?” Dad said.
“No, Jeremy took the trash out yesterday.”
She gave me an appreciative smile, which I acknowledged with my eyes over the
glass of orange juice I held against my face. “I checked almost every room.
It didn’t seem to be coming from anywhere. But it was there.”
The smell, which Mom described as “like a
rancid skunk”, returned only in brief and isolated pockets, a sort of noxious
ghost sweeping through, an odorous hit and run. It never stayed as long as
Mom described it that one night, and, so far as I could tell, it was never as
Until, that is, I saw the damn thing.
A couple weeks passed without any further
anomalies and for me the beginning of junior high had eclipsed any other
concerns. The school was K-12 so I knew I’d be seeing the same faces but the
prospect of what I was in for academically and the notion I was a mere three
years removed from high school weighed on me, frightened me. Stuff was
happening too fast – I was probably one of the few kids who didn’t really
want to grow up.
The eve of the first day of school found me
sitting on the back porch with my parents, nursing what was probably my fifth
Pepsi. My parents were lenient with that kind of thing, though I found out
later they were secretly playing the reverse psychology card, hoping my
bubbly bingeing would exhaust my taste for cola. It worked in the long run –
I scarcely touch it now.
The phone rang and my Mom, expecting a
call, went to get it. Dad and I sat silently for a few moments, Mom’s voice
abuzz in the kitchen, nearly drowned by the natural symphony of the
swamplands before us walled up behind the neural weavings of dark gnarled
cypress trees. Dad was smoking, characteristically pensive. When he finished
his cigarette he patted my thigh and excused himself to the bathroom. Said
he’d be right back.
The night is a bristly alive thing in the
Florida summer, and it spreads from the shadows and comes in close and
suffocating while concealing secrets rarely glimpsed. I was a kid when I
encountered one of these secrets, barely a decade removed from my physical
birth, and it was then that the real Jeremy Fishleder was born.
As I sat alone the smell returned but it
was faint and hollow, so much so I initially took it as an imaginative
perversion of some other smell, if not downright fabricated by my heightened,
I righted at the sound of disturbed foliage
and snapping branches. Something big lurked on the fringe our backyard, just
beyond the light of the back porch. Fortunately for the adult into whom I
would later develop, my young fears weren’t big enough to drive me into the
house, screaming and disrupting Mom’s phone call and who knows what else. At
this point – God knows why, given the last month – curiosity trumped fear.
I waited and tried to peer past the
foliage, then got up and went down the porch steps to the grass when
something truly did make me halt in fright: the smell, oh God the smell, that
sulfurous stench that was like a harsh olfactory whip, bladed and terrible,
worse than anything I’d smelled of it prior.
There was something there. Two eyes glinted
back at me from the brush, elevated in the darkness. I assumed it a deer,
especially in the way the animal froze.
But the smell grew. Deep and musky. Wild.
Then the lighted eyes rose -- it was
definitely taller than a deer. Maybe six feet. I stepped back. We stared at
one another across a gulf not only of species but of spirit, two entities
from two different dimensions suddenly intersected.
The eyes rose a final time as it stood its
full height, and for a long second all of civilization drained from me. It
And cautiously, it came forward and the
light drew it further and further into form.
The thing emerged from fringe of the
backyard and I stepped back. Our eyes remained dead-locked and I could see
them better, see them deeper and they were orange-tinted, small citrus gleams
alien but identifiably terrestrial, even twistedly empathetic. The animal was
bipedal, more erect than most people I see, and so goddamn massive -- to my
child brain, a Rose Parade float. All functions in my young body came to a
standstill. It was like a childhood fantasy thrust upon me, a trespassing
dream lost in reality, and I had no reaction other than a strange sensation
that straddled the line between awe and terror.
The creature stood and looked towards the
house, then back into the warm syrupy wilderness from which it had come
stomping. The odor held firm and strong, a noxious forcefield. It opened its
mouth as if to yawn and I could see long wet canines. Then the mouth closed
sharply and the head – which was fastened directly to the shoulders with no
discernible neck – slanted back and from the depths of its throat issued a
burst of whooping noises that ranged from fleeting to full, long and slow.
Its body responded to each whoop with a tremble that ruffled the lengthy
silver-blue hairs hanging like coarse tinsel from its skin.
Then it turned, moved, and was gone.
Hurrying back inside, I went for the first
visible person which was my father. Though I stammered and was probably
somewhat incoherent, he was patient enough to bring it out of me.
“What’s wrong, Jeremy?” he asked.
I remember telling him there was a giant
‘man-monkey’ in our yard and to my young surprise he took it quite seriously.
He told me to stay inside while he went to retrieve his .22. I’m sure he
thought there was some whacko prowling around who was celebrating Halloween a
little too early and a little too invasively.
My mother continued her phone conversation
in the other room, unaware her husband was charging outside after a bogeyman.
I half-ignored Dad’s request to stay inside and went to the back screen door
and stood facing the wire-meshed blackness that was swallowing him with each
He said something about our yard being full
of someone’s rotting garbage, and seemed far more motivated now to search for
the source. I remained in the doorway the entire time.
After a twenty minute search, nothing was
uncovered. Nothing more was seen. Nothing more was heard. For reasons
unknown, we never smelled the thing again, nor were any more rocks hurled our
In the morning, my folks and I went out to
the spot in our yard where I heard it walking. By then the smell had
thankfully subsided, and the only signs something had been there were broken
branches and flattened foliage. Although no physical source for the garbage
odor was ever found (and Mom, when she smelled the residual odor that night,
did remark that it was “like what I smelled before, only helluva lot worse”),
we did stumble across something.
strands hung off the edge of a snapped branch, like pieces of a breeze that
had congealed, become tangible. They were long and gray. Carefully I took
them from their ornamental dangling and Dad came over and took a closer look
himself. Neither he nor Mom really had any idea what it could be – theories
were far-ranging and short-lived but the consensus my parents reached was
that a long-haired old transient had stumbled onto the premises. Perhaps the
features were a little distorted or lop-sided, Dad suggested, and between the
darkness and natural youthful exaggeration I had thought I’d seen…whatever it
was I thought I’d seen.
Later tests of the hair all come back the
same: it’s human, but not.