Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash
Overcast skies and salted air antagonized Milo at the end of a long morning's drive to the Oregon Coast. Charleston Harbor butted against a heavily wooded arm of the South Slough estuary at the mouth of Coos Bay where idle Dungeness crab trawlers crowded the marina for the off-season. Milo searched for the address listed in his copy of the Charleston Bulletin and tracked it to a run-down Bait & Tackle shop on the wharf. Inside, an overweight Frederick M. Price, the Bulletin's Editor-in-Chief, scowled from behind the counter with a half-done bowline in one hand and a tarnished double hook in the other.
"Excuse me. I'm Milo, the biology student from Siskiyou University. I wrote to you about the ecology paper I was working on? The one about the effects of encroachment on Oregon Coastal habitat?"
He recognized Milo's name from the letters.
"I was hoping you might provide more details about the recent . . . 'animals found butchered on the outskirts of town, their bones missing'?" Milo quoted from Mr. Price's article.
Price shifted his bulging gut. His eyes sank back down to the line and hook in his hands. He mumbled, "Doesn't concern you," and "Wasting your time."
Milo insisted, "Any information you have might help. Then I'll be out of your hair."
Milo wouldn't leave, and Price's face turned cruel. He looked at the young student sideways and told him, "Try the library . . . across the bay. One-O-One North . . . second left after the Eastside Bridge . . . can't miss it."
Milo thanked him, and Price bid his visitor goodbye with an evil smirk.
Certain colleagues of Milo liked to label him "Bigfoot-chaser", among other things, for running after the strangest of leads. But he didn't do so to entertain what he considered to be fairy tales. He did so because no one else would, leaving them all to himself. Charleston was just another case of man's clash with nature after encroaching on the habitat of mountain lion, black bear, bobcat, and other predators, like many others he'd documented. He was sure of it. And just like the others, it was going to help him earn the prestige he deserved. He wouldn't let obstinate locals or anyone else stand in his way.
Before heading to the library, he detoured to Ivy Landing, the neighborhood mentioned in the Bulletin. Swaths of overgrown blackberry bushes, with shriveled, overripened fruit clinging to their vines well past season, crowded against backyard fences, forming a natural barrier between Charleston and the untamed forest beyond. Misted darkwoods lurked on the other side, swooping into the hills of Oregon's coastal wilderness, a mossy temperate rainforest with pockets of unexplored, centuries-old forest so dense that the sun never touched their lowest levels.
"--the last house on Ivy Landing," the article mentioned.
A weather-worn 1950's style ranch home took up the end of the lane with a neatly trimmed lawn, sculpted hedges, and thoroughly weeded flower beds. A rusted station wagon occupied the driveway that had clearly been in recent use.
Milo knocked. No one answered.
A ragged curtain flapped through a broken window behind one of the flower beds. A quick look inside showed a living room that had been tidied. However, dark splotches on the carpet and walls hinted at what must have occurred there. Unless the window had been broken previous to the incident, such circumstances ruled out virtually every predator besides black bear. Rare behavior, indeed, but not entirely unheard-of.
Milo saw a next-door neighbor inch halfway onto his front porch out of the corner of his eye, a balding, middle-aged man in a flannel bath robe. He stared down his nose at Milo through a pair of gold-framed spectacles.
Milo hollered, "Do you know the people who live here? Do you know when to expect them?"
The man sneered, and said, "No one lives there anymore." He slid back inside. The door clicked shut.
Milo eventually found something useful in the Coos County Library archives--with no help from the librarian, a cantankerous skeleton of a woman. After wading through a slew of microfiche dating back to Charleston's "Gold Rush" days, a grainy headline jumped out at him:
BONE EATER MASSACRES TERRORIZE CHARLESTON GOLD MINERS
People had been found butchered all over 19th-century Charleston, their bones missing--people, not animals--entire families gone overnight. That explained what might have happened on Ivy Landing and what Mr. Price might have been concealing. Milo shivered.
Graves had also been robbed, especially those of Charleston's oldest cemeteries. Coffins had been dug up and left exposed, bones taken.
One author in the Coos Bay Gazette, 1857, made accusations towards Redmaw, Charleston's closest neighbor to the south: "Those pale-skinned reprobates are the ones to blame. The ones we've all seen skulking in the hills outside our beloved Charleston. The ones with nothing moral or decent to offer the world. Those debauched souls who spend their days in sloth and their nights at the feet of unGodly, unholy idols! Those wretched denizens of Redmaw!"
A bony finger tapped on his shoulder.
"The library will be closing--"
Milo left equally horrified and titillated. People as victims better suited his thesis. To identify whatever terror was responsible for the killings would make a fine capstone to his project and no doubt earn him high marks, not to mention boost his chances at candidacy for graduate work. He was tempted to gloat to Mr. Price about what he'd uncovered, but returned to the Bait & Tackle shop only to find the place closed for the night.
Milo was hungry.
Sunset turned Charleston's gray skies into deep shades of indigo, crimson, and violet. Milo sat at the bar in Kilgore's Fish House up the road from the wharf, asking everyone within earshot, between baskets of fish-'n-chips, for directions to Redmaw. Customers and waitresses turned their backs and shunned his questions. The bartender, out of pure cruelty or simple impatience, eventually scrawled what he knew on a greasy napkin and handed it over.
That quieted Milo. He parted with a belly full of deep fried cod and holed up for the night in a shabby motel across the street.
The town of Charleston was built on Coos Indian land. Even Milo had heard their stories, as well as those of the Siletz, Siuslaw, Umpqua, and others, about certain non-human races who walked the earth before mankind: there was Tall Man, known to white folk as Bigfoot or Sasquatch, who wielded powerful medicine; Tall Man's cousin, the evil one, who wasn't to be spoken of; the Little People who helped lost ones, especially children; and the Mist People, servants of the sea-god, who emerged from their cave dwellings when the fog was heaviest. If the recent attacks had anything to do with such legends, or if the people of Redmaw were of any relation to the so-called Mist People, Milo wasn't concerned.
The unmarked turnoff down Seven Devils Highway was easy to miss. A poor excuse for a service route branched off into moss-covered woods and ended at an assemblage of bizarre lean-tos huddled together within a twisted knot of dirt roads. This was Redmaw.
Every shack displayed ugly collections of sun-bleached driftwood and ocean-smoothed stone carved into obscene idols that would've been more at home among the gargoyles of Europe's most grotesque cathedrals, or the ancient sculptures that haunted many Aztec and Mayan ruins in Mesoamerica. Local Indian tribes shunned such practices and attributed them solely to the Mist People, or "Tehshu Kheh'she" in the extinct Coosan tongue. The most prevalent image, and the most unnerving, was that of the sea-god, the two-headed serpent Ci'Suotl, whom the Mist People supposedly served.
Milo paid these no mind. He pounded on doors, yelling for someone to come out and answer his questions. Small-framed, pallid figures hid inside of every tumbledown shanty and refused to speak to him. They peered from mute shadows, faces, hair, and clothes all uncouth, disheveled messes, and stared as if Milo's words were utterly incomprehensible. None would help him. He exhausted himself trying.
He wandered to the edge of the village where clumps of squalid dwellings teetered on the edge of a precipice overlooking the ocean. He followed a steep, narrow path down the cliffside to an isolated beach. Frothed, clouded waters crashed over jagged rocks and licked mottled beds of smoothed stone and coarse, grayish, volcanic sand. A sheer bluff met the water in layers of rust-colored sandstone pockmarked with gypsum and reddish-brown iron-oxide veins. Milo felt eyes on him wherever he went.
At the base of the rock, Milo uncovered inlets where the cliff face had eroded into hidden caves and alcoves, some deeper than others. These were littered with more obscene idols, depictions of unnatural beings more grotesque than the ones above ground. Hardened amorphous pools of wax hinted at what must have been nightly vigils held in those places. Again and again, Milo stumbled on two-headed statues of the serpent-god Ci'Suotl decked with strange offerings, each one larger and more disturbing than the last.
The deepest recess sliced away from the shore, unreachable by foot. Milo searched for another path when movement caught his eye. Something scampered up the ledge. Reddish-brown fur blended in too well to distinguish from the cliff until it moved again. The thing scaled the precipice, lunging from rock to rock with inhuman strength and agility. It paused at the top and stared. Then it was gone.
The tide was rising. Milo was out of time. He retraced his steps through Redmaw under the depraved eyes of its inhabitants and returned to Charleston to seek a means to reach the inaccessible cave.
Most sailors in Charleston shied away from the first mention of Redmaw, pretending not to be sure of the way, or making up some other reason to withdraw from the conversation. The one skipper daring or desperate enough to hear Milo out was a man called Moe, short for Moebius, who captained a trawler named La Vierge.
"I'll pay you double the cost to take me there and back," Milo offered.
With finances stretched thin waiting for Dungeness season to kick off, and many mouths to feed at home, Moe agreed.
The ocean was an abyss without end in the hours before dawn. Black waves slapped against the hull of La Vierge. A weary Milo huddled in the cabin over a borrowed thermos of coffee behind Moe who navigated the dark sea by instrument and flood light. Moe's lanky first mate walked the deck bearing an electric lantern, floating through the night like a ghost.
They arrived at an eerie spot. Turbulent waters shook the boat in ways that left Milo disoriented. The bluffs of Redmaw were shadowy walls basking in the spray of murky waves. Somewhere beyond the reach of the trawler's flood lights was the cave.
They dropped anchor and lowered Milo in a flimsy raft with only a flash light and a hardcover journal in which he kept his notes. Tide-worn pebbles crunched on the shore where he landed as he dragged the raft away from the ocean's dark roar.
Candles flickered in distant alcoves. Faceless shadows flitted in an out, scuttling up the path which Milo had taken before to the ramshackle village, their pale bodies making spectral blurs in the twilight. Milo found the cave ahead.
Dampness crept up the walls and along the sandy ground. The deeper cavities were stratified by jagged bands of red jasper, tiger's eye, burnt orange calcite, and rust-tinted aragonite. Fallen, fallow-colored boulders showed sings of scraping where something had been sharpened against then. Stone flakes, slivers, and coarse dust piled around them. An awful, fetid smell wafted from some unseen place.
Milo aimed his light upwards and saw strings of bones hanging down by the hundreds. Not a square foot of cave roof was unadorned. Cryptic skeletal designs also decorated the upper walls, spelling out things that Milo couldn't comprehend. Others were clear depictions of the two-headed serpent Ci'Suotl.
Milo jumped when a shadow stepped in front of the cave entrance. He spun around with his light and found a beast hunched over on its foreknuckles, its fur gross and discolored in mangy patches. Lidless eyes jerked under a sloping forehead, trying to steal a better look at Milo. Its pupils contracted, and its nostrils twitched in his direction. In one hand, it held a long, pointed stone with an uneven, tapered edge. As rapidly as it appeared, it darted away.
Milo was shaken and exhilarated in the same rush. Whatever that thing was, it spelled the discovery of a lifetime. He needed evidence.
He climbed onto the boulders to better reach the hanging bones. He pulled one, and a piece broke off. The string that held the bones together was a sinewy fiber that Milo didn't recognize. The bones were marred by jagged grooves made by the creature's primitive stone tool, as well as teeth marks where it had gnawed. Milo bundled them under his arm and sprinted back to the raft, looking over his shoulder for another sight of the creature but saw nothing. He reached La Vierge and the first mate hauled him aboard.
"Did you see it?" Milo asked, catching his breath. "Did you see which way it went?"
The first mate said nothing. Milo hurried to the cabin and asked Moe if he'd seen which way the thing had gone, but he said nothing either. They weighed anchor and sailed full speed for Charleston, Milo searching the dark coastline for another glimpse of that wretched, hairy, cave-dwelling thing.
Milo gave Moe the rest of what he owed back at the docks, then the two parted ways. Milo went straight to his motel room to start documenting what he had found while it was still fresh in his mind.
The sea raged that night. Thunderous clouds rolled in on terrible winds. The water was blackened by an ominous shadow, a dark, serpentine mass. Frightening swells rose wherever it went. It raced from one end of the bay to the other. Waves surged into the harbor, tossing boats aground. The marina was ripped and tangled up into a complete wreckage. A heavy mist descended from the hills so thick that neighbors couldn't see each other across the street. The tempest forced every man, woman, and child of Charleston to barricade themselves indoors.
Through the mist, small, pale-skinned figures scurried down streets and alleyways and loped over rooftops. Even Milo heard thumping on the motel roof but dismissed it as the wind.
In the aftermath the following day, the windows of Milo's room were found shattered and the inside strewn with remains. If they were Milo's, his bones, along with his journal and the sum of his findings, were gone.
Nathan Sweem served as an Army linguist specializing in Arabic and taught high school algebra for a stint. He writes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. His work has appeared in The Worlds Within, The Antihumanist, Active Muse, and others. Connect with him and find more of his work through social media (@nathan_sweem) and his personal website (darkislandfire.net).
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