Along the Bayou

Down along the bayou that runs straight through town and just behind our neighborhood like a muddy yellow vein, there is a creature unlike any I’ve ever seen before. It has the body of a dog, or it would be doglike if it weren’t naked, except for angry red and grey scales, with a tail that whips back and forth like a cat stalking prey, and a head covered in such dark short fuzz that it appears to be nothing more than a shadow out of which two beady eyes peer. I have never seen its teeth, but I sense that it has them. It lives in the trees, mostly, swinging from limb to limb in the canopy with elongated arms, though occasionally it scuttles along the banks of the bayou on stubby claws. It must have a nest somewhere nearby because it is always there, prowling and lurking.

Once, my daughter and I were walking by the bayou on an abnormally warm October day: I, treading carefully, watching for snakes or the creature, she, careening here and there through the undergrowth, snatching sticks and flinging them off the path. We came to the area called The Ant Hills, a collection of dirtbike obstacles long since abandoned by the bikers who used to crash over them. Vines have crept over the halfpipes, reabsorbing the mounds and embankments into the sodden Earth. It’s out just behind the country club-the one that only let blacks in a few years back-and the course runs right up to the chain link fence that is meant to keep people from wandering onto the green. I suddenly found myself wondering if the creature had ever made its way over the fence, scrambling into the sand traps to bathe like a pigeon. It would have been chased away by security, I’m sure, like an undesirable solicitor or a homeless person, leaving behind the slightest scent of sulfur.

It was while I was considering how far the creature might roam that I heard my daughter scream. She’d run too far ahead of me to be visible on the path, and I began jogging to catch up to her. I rounded the bend calling out her name but couldn’t see her anywhere. My pace quickened, as I chided myself for being so foolish. Nobody had ever seen the creature do anything particularly nasty, but it couldn’t have been friendly, and here we were wandering around in its habitat, acting as if we owned the place. I’d seen the news stories of children grabbed by apes at the zoo. One minute the animal was rocking back and forth and grinning for cameras, and the next it was thrashing a toddler around like a ragdoll. I tried not to imagine what the creature could do with those sinewy arms and preternaturally long fingers wrapped around my little girl. As I rounded the second bend, heart racing and palms sweating, she jumped out from behind a log and snarled at me, doing her best impression of the creature. That’s not funny, I said, and anyway, it doesn’t usually make noises, but she laughed and laughed, deeply pleased with her deception.

I never let her play in the woods alone, for fear that the creature might try something. But the children make sport of teasing the poor thing whenever they’re grouped up. They call it different things, but most just hiss at it to get it to leave them alone. I once found them-my daughter included-surrounding a live oak with the creature sitting up in a branch just out of reach. They were throwing rocks at it, shouting and calling it names. I told them to leave it alone. Let it be. But thirty minutes later, when I walked by again, they’d collected sticks to try to poke it. The poor creature was letting out a raspy wheeze, as if it were very old or possibly ill. Later that evening, I called Animal Control, hoping something could be done. Certainly, they could send someone out with a net and cage large enough to catch this creature. There had to be a quiet riverbank somewhere far, far away where the thing could live out its days in peace, or at least there had to be a simple injection that could rid us of it once and for all. They laughed and laughed at my call. I wasn’t the first, they said. I won’t be the last. There’s no getting rid of it. They’ve tried. At first, they tried taking it out to the country and releasing it, but by the time they got back to the office another neighbor had left a message that it was atop her charcoal barbecue pit, shivering and convulsing while it stared silently at the sky.

Mostly today, we just ignore it. We let it lope around in the undergrowth. Some of the families have begun leaving food out for it, but I think that just encourages it to linger. The younger children are too curious to leave it alone, but by the time they’ve gotten to high school, they’ve found other things to do in the woods that don’t involve the creature, and they mostly forget about it. Neighborhood animals go missing from time to time but that could just as easily be the coyotes, and there’s nothing to be done about them either.

It never does seem to age. It is perennial, just a part of the woods as much as any stone or root, dug deep into the banks of the bayou. It seems more active after storms, chittering and clacking up and down the banks as if the garbage that has been swept downstream toward the Gulf was meant as a personal affront. I have seen it glance around furtively as it stashes garbage in one palm, using its long fingers like pincers to tweeze the wrappers and bottles out of the silt. Where it takes the garbage and what it does with it once it gets there, I’ll never know.

When Autumn arrives, and fireflies begin to glint like distant lighthouses warning of a rocky shore, the creature reduces its activity. It does not truly hibernate. Its eyes are always active, no matter how sedentary it becomes. More like a snake entering brumation, it burrows into the hollow of a large tree that must have been struck by lightning years ago. It folds itself into the cavity, wrapping its arms once, twice, three times around its body like a cocoon, and lowering its head until only the glittering black eyes peer out from over the arms. Its tail lies coiled and lifeless by its side. But its eyes stare out of the tree, unblinking.

Once, a child disappeared into the woods in Winter. The iron sky had beaten the last of the leaves off the trees, and the bayou was churning dark. No one is sure exactly what sent him into the woods at dusk-and we parents, knowing how arguments with children can turn, didn’t press the issue. We’re not sure whether he even went in of his own accord, though we suspect he must have since the creature seemed to merely be resting and watching. The search party found traces of him, almost immediately, strewn under the fig tree over by the deep hollow off the bayou. The creature was still nestled snugly in its trunk and didn’t appear to have moved. We wrestled with whether to disturb it to check it for clues to the boy’s whereabouts, but nobody could steel themselves to touch it in the end. Some speculated that other children had lured the boy down to the bayou as a joke, but most of us doubted any of the other children could be cruel enough to do that. They never found the body. It was harder to blame the coyotes for that.

In the Spring, the creature unfurls itself like a great bat, gliding up and down the trunk of the dead tree for a few hours before scampering off to whatever lair it keeps elsewhere. It’s during this time that it molts, leaving great leaves of dead skin, puckered and rotten along the trails by the water. We can’t really go there until early Summer when something-perhaps the creature itself-has eaten or otherwise disposed of the skin. The stench is unbearable until at least May Day. In the meanwhile, the children dare each other to run into the woods, counting how many seconds it takes for the bravest among them to come back, eyes watering, stomach roiling with revulsion.

We have talked of leaving, often. My husband says it isn’t anything to worry about, that we should just ignore it. And anyway, how could we sell the house with a creature like that living nearby. The loss we’d take on the property would just be too great. So here we stay, and, as more time elapses, I suppose I’ve come to agree. There’s nothing to be done about the creature. And, anyway, who’s to say it won’t follow us somewhere else.

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