I slipped my paddle into the dark water and pulled it slowly, moving my canoe forward. The sun had set quickly, and the instant darkness reminded me that, although it was a waning quarter moon, the cloud cover was so heavy that I’d get no light from the sky. I hadn’t meant to stay on the river so late, but I had gone farther north than usual, absorbed in the beauty of the willows and swamp maples. I could barely see ahead of me in the darkness, so I had to move carefully. I had been warned to get off the river before sunset, there was talk about how dangerous it was to be on the river at night.
Ow! A low hanging branch scraped my forehead as I ducked too late. I rubbed the raw spot and wished for a clear sky. I was lucky that this river had no tributaries, so I couldn’t get lost. It was a straight shot back to where the river broke open to the shoreline where I had parked my truck. Who was I kidding, it was more of a creek than a river, but everyone from the area called it Muddy River so that’s how I thought of it.
More than once I came so close to the bank that my canoe scraped bottom. I had taken my long canoe, hoping I would find some new specimens to take back with me, but it was harder to maneuver alone. For months I had been studying the river, collecting bones and other remains, trying to identify the details so I could put together enough clues to understand how the animals had died. There were no roads or paths that led into these woods, the only way to get there was Muddy River. I’d had no luck finding any evidence that day which was another reason I had stayed so long. I had not wanted to return empty handed.
Why were there so many bones? What was killing and eating the animals in the area? Was it a wildcat, or a wolf? Neither species had been seen in these woods in many years. And some of the bones I found were human, apparently other fools like myself who stayed on the river too late at night.
So I paddled my empty long canoe clumsily back down the river, sitting just forward of center to help my steering, thinking about the bones, and the warning of the locals. I had taken their stories only as legend, ghost stories that they told each other for the excitement. But the more evidence I found, over the past few months, the more curious I was, and now, in the blackness of the night, I was getting nervous.
Suddenly I heard a noise. It was a cross between a moan and a howl and it made me shiver. Was it some sort of nocturnal bird? A wild dog? It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. In my nervousness I scraped the bottom of the canoe again. Damn it! It was hard to stay in the center of the river when I could barely see. As I pulled on my paddle, to move away from land, I felt a weight shift in the back of the canoe. The canoe sunk a bit deeper and no longer leaned forward with my weight.
I heard the noise again, only closer. What was that?! I paddled a bit faster, hoping to put distance between myself and whatever creature was making that noise. The canoe suddenly rocked, yes, there was motion in the back. I had to admit what I already knew. There was something in the boat with me.
I held my breath and looked back, but it was so dark I could see nothing. Wait, did the darkness behind me just move? I couldn’t really see any shape, it was more of an energy shift. I turned and paddled faster. This was crazy, the moonless night, the heavy tree cover, I was driving blind. I leaned forward and continued to paddle as fast as I dared in the darkness. The heavy humid fragrance of the trees and river plants filled my lungs, I felt suffocated by the fragrance and claustrophobic in the darkness.
I tried to calm myself. If I couldn’t see, then neither could the creature, whatever it was. I leaned down, lowering my head and shoulders, still paddling but trying to keep out of the way from any low branches. I felt the boat rock again, was it trying to get closer to me? It wasn’t making that sound, but I imagined I heard it breathing. Or maybe it wasn’t my imagination. Tree toads and crickets seemed overly loud in my head. Branches from low trees and bushes scraped the sides of the boat. I felt the river moving a bit faster, and I realized I was coming to the wider point, almost home. There was some current here. I knew it would get wider, and then narrower again, before the river ran by the open sandy shore near the clearing where I had parked.