Detail from Fanny Vandegrift Stevenson, Tent, California (about 1880). The Indianapolis Museum of Art, Bequest of Ethel A. Baird.

There were five parts to this story, but one of them got lost. It was difficult to keep each strand in her mind, even as it was happening, and then later—no. 

To begin with, they were camping. This whole story happens at night. It’s the first night of their first camping trip of the season. It’s only mid-March but hot as June, so they booked a site at a campground in the Ozarks. Actually, she booked the site, picking this park because it boasted three promising trails they could choose from in the morning: one that took them past the remains of old mining operations for barite, one with dolomite bluffs, and one that wound through a field with Mississippian petroglyphs. “The location of mysterious prehistoric rituals,” she read aloud from the website. But they couldn’t leave until after their son’s swim practice on Friday, itself after school, so they didn’t get to the campsite until basically dinnertime. The sky was a dull gray. Her husband wrestled the tent and she was unpacking the cooler when the custodian of the campground drove up in a golf cart. “Hunting mushrooms?” he asked, nodding toward their son, who was just then disappearing into the woods behind the site. “I think he’s gathering kindling,” she said, though she didn’t know, just wandering off, probably looking for rocks. “Can’t do that,” said the man. “Not supposed to burn the wood around here. I can sell you some. Six dollars a bag.” “Sure,” her husband said, stepping in to pay the man, who handed over an orange plastic net heavy with logs. Then he listed the park’s amenities and rules. Recycling cans, white-nose syndrome. “Stay out of the caves,” he said. He wore a red cap with embroidered block letters that spelled Make America Great Again. She hadn’t ever stood in front of someone wearing that hat. “I read about those petroglyphs,” she said when he was done. “Do you know anything about the rituals connected to the site?” The man shrugged. “Official word is the rocks give directions for a game, something like Indian baseball.” “Indian baseball?” she said. “Then again,” he added, “some folks will tell you those marks are a sort of a curse.” She smiled at him. “You’re joking, right?” His phone rang. He drove away. The cloud cover had cracked. Fat white clouds were racing east, and the sun was out, though low. The boy was not yet back. The sun was so low, in fact, that the woods—she saw bluebells poking up through a crust of last autumn’s leaves—were glowing a greenish-gold. “He’s probably looking for rocks,” she said, and popped a grape in her mouth. Her husband didn’t reply, clearing the fire pit of spiders. It had been hot like this for weeks, so she was pleased to see the bluebells still more or less on schedule. Bluebells, cockle-shells, eevy, ivy, over. My mother said, I never should, play with the gypsies in the wood. “It’s pretty here,” she said, but it was also quiet. No humming RVs. No barking dogs. No kids screaming with glee. Other than her husband, who appeared beside her at the picnic table snapping a can of beer—“Did you notice that asshole’s hat?” he said—she couldn’t see or hear anyone at all. 

After dinner, her husband and son went together to brush their teeth. When she’d looked at the map online, she hadn’t realized she was booking the site closest to the bathrooms. “It’ll be nice!” she said when they pulled up. “If we need to pee in the middle of the night we can just pop over.” But it wasn’t nice, and she knew it, and knew what her husband thought. Plus the lights in the bathrooms didn’t turn off, so their site wasn’t completely dark even after sundown. “Light is pollution,” the boy had informed them while eating his campfire nachos. There was a laundry room too, with someone’s shoes tumbling loudly in a dryer—so somebody else was there—and the sweet stink of dryer-sheet flowers blowing on the air. Alone, she looked up to the trees. The sky was a blacker black than they ever saw at home. “The night has a thousand eyes,” she remembered, “and the day but one.” This night had more like a trillion eyes, a zillion. No doubt she should be stirred. No doubt she should be having some sort of epiphanic dawning. Instead, on a log, swatting at something biting her arm, she pulled up a clip on YouTube about the blackest black paint in the world. “It’s as if you could literally disappear into it,” spoke a disembodied British voice. A man was painting a circle on an empty concrete floor. “So light-absorbing it bends your brain.” Then there it was, absorbing all light, a black hole in the palm of her hand. The real reason they’d come camping was to try to cheer her up. A student of hers had been killed that week. Eighteen years old, over from China, just trying to cross a street. She couldn’t sleep for thoughts of his parents, still thousands of miles away. One night before dawn she’d awakened her husband to whisper, “He is never studying abroad.” Now her brain bent as the woods rang with the sound of a drop of water. “Was that a bird?” she called. Two backlit figures were walking down the path. 

The second part is the story their son told by the campfire. He’d been researching cryptids for a school report and drew her a picture of his favorite, Mothman, which she’d hung on her office wall. The drawing showed a large gray rectangle with two sad eyes and no mouth. The rectangle had legs and arms but where its hands should be were wings, and it stood alone on a rock before a vista of conical hills. “It’s November in the year 1966”—his face a shadowy landscape from the light below his chin. “Two men are digging a grave at a cemetery in West Virginia. It’s a moonless night and they’re almost done when something big swoops over their heads and flies into the woods. The next morning they tell everyone in town. The first guy says it looked like a devil with flaming eyeballs, but the other guy keeps calling it ‘the dark creature,’ and…”. The story continued with a young couple out driving the next night between the same cemetery and an old World War II facility that used to manufacture TNT. Then more witnesses and a suspected government cover-up: toxic waste, five-legged deer, the ponds in the woods near the TNT site had turned pink. The mayor told everyone the creature was a migrating crane. The milkman said its eyes flashed like the lights on a bike. An old lady blamed it for the buzzing noise coming out of her TV. The pastor’s dog was mutilated. One family even moved. All this went on for a year. “Someone described it,” the boy said, “like watching a horror movie and waiting for the terrible thing to happen, kind of wishing it would happen, like wishing you could get it over with, but then you realize you’re inside the movie, so this is your actual life.” Finally, on the Friday before Christmas in 1967, during the evening rush hour, the bridge that connected their town to the next began violently to shake, flipped once, and collapsed into the river. Forty-six people died in the icy Ohio. “Of course they blamed it on ‘the dark creature,’ which they claimed they never saw in town again. One of the ones who died was a little boy wearing a suit. The end!” Then he shook the flashlight all around the campsite. “So how come they call it Mothman,” she asked, shielding her eyes, “if everyone thought it looked like a bird?” “How should I know,” he said, and he snapped off the light. 

It was only recently he’d turned into this stranger, or some hybrid of a stranger and the boy she used to know. Last weekend, with her husband away in Dallas again for work, he’d sulked on the couch for hours until she finally got him to talk. “I saw a picture of my dad when I was researching the Dover Demon, and it’s freaking me out,” he said. But she didn’t understand, so he explained he’d been on his laptop researching the Dover Demon, a cryptid from Massachusetts, when he saw a picture of a man sitting in a chair alone in a dark room, “And there was a red circle next to his head and he looked exactly like my dad.” For a moment, she had to admit, she felt the rumble of some panic, a horrible sense she was losing her grip on both of them at once. “Okay, show me this picture,” she said. But when she saw it she smiled. The man in the photograph did look remarkably like her husband, but it was not her husband. “It’s not your dad,” she said. “Are you sure?” “I promise. It’s a middle-aged white guy with a beard. They’re everywhere. But look at this guy’s eyebrows. And his glasses are nothing like your dad’s.” “A person can get new glasses,” he said, pushing up his own. So instead she asked him questions about the Dover Demon—lanky spider body, watermelon head—but when she tried to ask if something else was bothering him, something at school, with friends, he turned back into a stranger and asked her to leave his room. 

The third part is shorter and it’s the dream she had in the tent, which brought together the story her son had told, a memory from her own childhood, and the fact that that night, unbeknownst to them, a herd of cattle was out to pasture on the far side of the woods. She’s back on the gravel spit. This is in California in 1985. She and her sister are sifting through gravel, looking for shells or river glass or bugs. They’re alone. The river is slow-moving in summer and banked on either side by growth that’s deeply green. At some point they hear cattle lowing on the opposite bank, behind the tangle of trees. They’ve grown up around animals and know the sound well enough, yet she can’t remember ever finding it anything but unsettling. She’s given this some thought and suspects it’s because the sounds cows make are mostly the sounds of mothers trying to find their children or of children who’ve gone lost. Or else it was a library book she checked out in second grade, which claimed to relate the true story of a child who’d been frightened to death by a cow. Once upon a time in Oklahoma, a grazing cow approached an open window. Inside, a child was playing. The cow stuck her head between the gingham curtains. The child turned. The cow mooed. The child died of fright. But this was something else. This day on the river was something else. These cows sounded like they were being beaten to death. “Do you hear that?” she yelled to Millie. Millie heard it too. Soon it got louder, closer. They kept expecting a herd of cattle to come crashing through the trees. Wherever they went on the gravel spit they could hear the awful lament, and sometimes they’d catch a word or two. Someone out there was shouting. Finally, they heard gunshots, and they stood on the gravel crying and whispering, “Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.” Days later, the girls came across their parents speaking softly in the kitchen about a tragedy at a nearby ranch, but they never found out what had happened. She is holding a shard of bright-red river glass. There’s something in the water. She knows it’s bodies, and she knows there are forty-six, but she won’t know if it’s people or cows until— 

Someone is screaming outside the tent. This is the fourth part. They wake, sweating, with socks laid over their eyes, which they’ve been using to block the light. “What time is it?” she whispers. Someone is screaming outside. “Probably just a methhead,” her husband says, reaching for his watch. “Just a methhead?” says her son, and for a moment she thinks she might laugh. But someone is screaming, like speaking in tongues. She’s never heard anything like it. “A quarter past midnight,” her husband says. The screaming goes on and on. It’s close, very loud. Possibly up at the bathrooms. She and her husband exchange a look. She’s still half inside her dream. The image of a summer river hangs over all this like a veil. Then the screaming stops. Their ears fill instead with the soft sounds of the woods, the singing of crickets and katydids, and also—is it?—from somewhere in the night comes a murmuring of cattle. “Do you hear that?” she whispers, confused. “What?” But a shadow falls over their tent—a lump of darkness, then arms, hands. “Who’s there?” her husband shouts. 

The fifth part should go here, but even as it’s happening there’s too much to hang onto: her husband, her son, that screaming, the cows, the heat, her ankle, the woods— 

One night, when he was seven or eight, she read her son a story from a book called These Bad Things. It was surprisingly scary, and she knew she should stop, but they were so far in. She wanted to see how it ended. The main character was a rich man on his way to a famous museum. He saw many beautiful things there—marble busts, Egyptian reliefs, a Crusader’s golden tomb—which eased his mind from his troubles, until it was time to go. Looking for an exit he stepped into a gallery where a collage hung on the wall depicting people in rags, desperate people walking along a road, starving people, refugees, made of clumps of oil and magazines and heaps of garbage and teeth, and one kept drawing ladders, and one kept drawing sky, and one of them had a pipe for an arm, which extended out of the frame, into the room, and at the end of this pipe, as he walked by, was an envelope bearing the rich man’s name in an unfamiliar script. The story had not been called “Your Name Here,” but that’s how she’d always remembered it. It isn’t the rich man’s terrible end she thinks of now, the message in the envelope, or what happened to drive those people down that long and desperate road, but the envelope itself, swinging in the room, and how she’d taken the time to imagine her own name written across it in some unfamiliar hand. She wonders why she did that. Would everybody do that? She’s in the woods. Her foot is stuck. She turns her head away. A bad thing isn’t a story, no matter what people say. 

Danielle Dutton

Danielle Dutton is the author of the books Margaret the First, SPRAWL, and Attempts at a Life. Her writing has also appeared in Harper’s, BOMB, Noon, and The Paris Review. Dutton is co-founder and editor of the feminist press Dorothy, A Publishing Project, which just celebrated its tenth year and twentieth book.

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