“It is a place so polluted by man that nothing can live. Acres of land poisoned by arsenic, lead and zinc, where copper ore was smelted in great pyres of wood and fuel and the tailings were allowed to seep into the earth. A spot as smooth and dead as tarmac. The Slickens, we called it.”
The Senator tapped his cane on the floor of the sterile airport coffee shop with finality. “When I was a child you could find them all around Montana. Then they started to dig them out, but the Department of Environment Quality declared ours not to be ‘fluvially active’ and it was allowed to sit there like a noxious tumor on the farmland. My hardscrabble settler family, successes though we became, could never make enough money to clean it, and I didn’t want an old deathtrap to be our legacy. The passage of my bill assures federal funding for its removal at last.”
“Thank you, that’s just what I needed.” The reporter scribbled in his notebook.
Interrupting them for a second time, the Senator’s legislative assistant said, “We really should be going.”
The Senator nodded and took a sideways glance out the cafe’s big windows. The early part of sunset had already ignited the sky with an orange-purple glow. Red clouds hovered over distant buttes. In a couple of hours it would be full dark. He felt a tingle of excitement.
Taking him from his thoughts, the reporter asked, “You’ve already passed the bill, so why come back and see this place now? Surely there’s nothing more to prove.”
The Senator tilted back his head. Old eyes, limpid like spit-shined marbles in their doughy nest of pink wrinkles, examined the ceiling for a moment. “A hundred years ago when my family settled in Montana, the country was just being electrified. They homesteaded, planning to be farmers, but copper wiring was very profitable.” He twirled a gilded cufflink between forefinger and thumb. “This pollution is my heritage. Work finally starts tomorrow on its removal. I need to see it gone.”
“I hate to ask, but is it because of what happened to your sister?”
Leaning heavily on his cane, the Senator took his feet. “You’re young. Eager. I know you don’t mean to be rude, but I’m going to tell you what I tell all young people: The life before you is like fresh snow; take care for every step will show.” This was a favorite saying of his, and his fondness for it showed.
His assistant struck her slim arm between them. “The Senator doesn’t have any more time.”
“Thank you, Susan.”
Soon the Senator and his assistant were descending the Rimrocks in a limo perfectly impractical for the Montana highways. Below them, Billings looked as it ever had – wide, flat and architecturally indifferent – and the Senator hardly noticed it. He was thinking about the snows of his past. Big parts of his memory, particularly those of his childhood, were lost in a kind of a whiteout. What he did recall, no rational-thinking person would believe. Specifically, what he’d seen in the Slickens, and what had happened to his sister more than fifty years ago. That was not a story for the press. Perhaps it was a false memory. True or not, he found the implications horrible to consider; either he was in some sense mad or there was a monster out there.
They took the highway north through Billings Heights, and from there out onto the prairie. In his memory the region was just a few landmarks interspersed with gray, but lit by the preternatural light of a fading day it was a veritable sea of dirty-golden grasses, and seemed endless. He had forgotten what it was like to be surrounded by such a vast, empty expanse. There was nothing out there that was not wild and uncultivated, nothing that did not creep and howl in the night. At a signal from Susan, the driver rolled up an internal window to give his passengers privacy.
The Senator looked at her. She was fiddling with her Blackberry, answering his emails and setting up future appointments for him before they were out of signal range. She reminded him of someone he could never call to mind. He worked at it again unsuccessfully as, without looking up, she asked, “Why are we doing this?”
Surprised, the Senator did not immediately answer. He considered telling her the truth about what he remembered, about what had swum up out of the muck. But she would only think him an old man finally losing the battle with senility. Let her believe the lie he’d told the reporter. Let her believe it was nostalgia that brought him back to that haunted place of his distant childhood.
“You’re from New York City?” he said.
She pulled her dark hair over her ear and smirked at him. “Me? Jersey. New York. DC. In that order. I’m a city girl.”
“Then you wouldn’t understand what it’s like for a country boy like me.” Insulted, she flattened her lips together into a solid line and glanced sideways, away from him. The sun was dying, the sky changing from bright purple to midnight blue. Feeling guilty, he softened his voice. “I meant to say you wouldn’t believe me.”
“Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a Senator. But I repeat myself.”
He chuckled somberly at the joke he had taught her a year before. In a moment, he was decided. “Okay. I’ll tell you. But you can never tell anyone else.”
She put her phone in her purse, clasped her hands together and set them atop her skirt, waiting in expectant silence for him to begin.
Outside, a mule deer bounded away from the car.
“I have perfectly selfish motivations for wanting this place dug up.”
“No. And yes, in a way. My sister is long dead and buried. What I hope to find may still be out there, lurking. When they tear that place out, I will finally know the truth. Before they start work, I need to see if it’s changed, so I’ll know where to direct them. I want to guide them to it.”
“To what? What’s out there?”
His eyes puffed out and he stared at her like a man who had just crawled from a cave. “Something.”
Catching his intonation, she raised her eyebrows. “Some thing?”
“Yes. A fiend, a beast, a monster unknown to man. An it.”
She smiled sardonically. “An it?”
“Yes, I know how it sounds. Perhaps it never existed outside of my imagination, but I need to know because … just because.” He knocked on the window before them with the knob-tip of his cane. When the driver triggered it down, the Senator told him to turn off the main thoroughfare and onto the upcoming byway. The crossroads were marked by a dilapidated grain elevator, whose wood-cribbed rectangular silo was crumpling forward like a man asleep on his feet. The limo bounced as they crossed railroad tracks. Then it veered onto a rutted dirt path. He looked back at Susan, but she only shook her head and didn’t ask any more questions.
Two miles further, when their headlights finally hit the saggy farmhouse of his youth, it was well into twilight. However, even in the gathering gloom the scrofulous ruin of the farm was plainly visible. The white paint had withered and was flaking away like the skin of a desiccated corpse. Behind it, red roof peeled to reveal ribbing, the barn was just as deceased. Seeing this was to him like the opening of some long-forgotten tomb. Somehow he never expected this moment to come. His family had abandoned this place after his sister’s death and he hadn’t believed it would all still be here. The farmhouse should have collapsed by now. Even the grain elevator back by the tracks ought to have been swallowed into the land. All that deserved to live here were his nightmares.
The driver parked and killed the engine, but the Senator didn’t immediately open his door. Deep inside, snowy memories were stirring. A faceless creature looked at him from the past with obsidian eyes. He shivered. Finally, he let himself out and took several hobbling steps with the aid of his cane.
Susan came around the car. “You okay?”
“I was born in that house. I haven’t been back for a long time.” He started to walk away from her into the plain, away from the mummified farmhouse. Half a dozen stars had appeared in the sky.
“We should come back tomorrow.” Susan’s pale face glowed with nervous energy. “This old property can’t be safe and I’m not getting any cell phone signal. Your wife wouldn’t forgive me if I let you hurt yourself out here.”
“You’re not worried that it could be out there.”
She stared at him seriously for a moment and then laughed.
He sighed. “The work starts tomorrow; I want to look now.”
“Then at least let me get a flashlight from the driver.”
All he said was, “Hurry,” and then he started walking straight into the night.
When she called after him, he ignored her.
The buffalo grass had grown ragged and clumpy, and was difficult to traverse. He picked his way slowly, stabbing the ground here and there, and wished he’d thought to bring sturdier shoes. After a couple dozen paces, a light beam came up behind him, illuminating a swath of rocks and earth and making the darkness seem thicker and more ominous by contrast. When Susan caught up, her light suddenly framed blooms of greenish-white flowers. They were all around them. He tapped one of the stalks with the metal tip of his cane. “‘Meadow Death.’ A type of lily that would do terrible things to the livestock if they ate it.”
She snorted. “Tremendous.”
They walked on. The already dark landscape grew precipitously darker. The Senator felt the tickle of excitement in his stomach growing. What would he see when they arrived at the place where nothing could grow? He needn’t have wondered. An environmental blight that should have been cleaned up years ago, the barren site bore not a bud, not a single blade of grass, and even with no more light than that of a rising moon the exposed deposits of blue-green copper salts gave the land a sickly, bruised look. When Susan’s flashlight hit the ground, it shimmered like an oil slick.
Then his penny loafers were upon the Slickens. The shoes stuck, making a little sucking sound, leaving their mark with each step. The feeling of the sludge gliding under him was so familiar that it almost felt inviting, as if the grayish blue-green soil were welcoming him home. He was surprised to find himself grinning like a schoolboy. Without slowing down, he squinted ahead. The grim, naked swath stretched wide, and then descended at the center to an oval-bottomed sinkhole. Just the way it always had!
“You’re not actually going out there, are you?” Susan asked.
“Are you afraid?”
“Ugh,” she said, but continued to follow him. “I’m glad I wore my flats.”
The air tasted of metal. It was an odor that took him back in time. As a child he had been fascinated by this prairie pothole where the venomous sediment of the smelter had coagulated. Each fall the Slickens vanished in a blanket of snow, only to reemerge months later when the spring thaw slowly loosed the stinking, noxious ooze from its winter slumber. Oh, how it had enticed him as a child.
In his many fantasies it had been a prehistoric tar pit, an alien world and a post-apocalyptic swamp. His parents had banned him from ever visiting the carcinogenic location – and, truly, what right-thinking person would want to be there? But he’d loved to tromp the mucky greenish region. That was how he’d found the opening, a slit into the underground, and it was this that brought him back. He tried in vain to push through the veil of time and see what had happened. He still could not quite recollect. Even now that he was here, the memory was vague and unbelievable. Had the creature been real?
There was the entrance! The same one he’d found at the bottom of the mud hole all those years before. Time had more or less plugged it with the flow of gunk, but the shape of the aperture was unmistakable. He moved until he was standing directly above it. Now he could recognize it for what it was: Neither tar pit, nor alien world, nor swamp, nothing more than the rainstorm-collapsed roof of a cavern.
He felt a mounting disappointment. Montana was full of geological oddities and dinosaur bones, and this natural crevasse, formed as soft rock wore away beneath a hard cover, was anything but unusual.
The first time he’d seen it as a teen, he had convinced himself it was a mine shaft, floored with dirt and marbled with riches. That day, nothing would have kept him from spelunking. Not even the company of his little sister, Candace.
She had been twelve. The hole had frightened her, but she trusted in his company. Brown eyes wide with terror, girlish chin stiff and brave, she followed him in. He even encouraged her forward ahead of him, helping her down into the slime and stink, shining his little penlight over her shoulder as they squelched into the darkness.
God, had it really been fifty years ago?
Candace had gotten her foot stuck. To help her pull it free he had shifted his light from the tunnel ahead to her boots and almost missed the half-formed shadow rising from the mire. She screamed, once, and he’d brought the light up to see it reflect in the obsidian eyes of a humanoid mass, faceless and oozing. Dripping, slimy hands took his sister by the shoulders and forced her down into the seep; it swallowed her into itself and then disappeared alongside her with a few gloppy churns.
He’d been left alone, his light shining uselessly on an empty, muddy hole.
At least that’s how he always remembered the incident. And he did not remember much else. Whatever had happened next had been lost in those snows of time. But today, remembrance finally seemed to be coming to him. He looked around with greater excitement. Yes, events were becoming clear.
His parents had not believed him about the creature. They had asked him not to repeat his story to anyone. Let everyone think instead that Candace had gone off by herself, they said. They couldn’t admit, out loud, to the possible existence of a monster, and they did not want people to think their son insane.
Little, dark-haired Candace had been found, face down, naked, sprawled in the muck two days later. Blame for the murder fell to some nameless drifter caught riding the rails. And perhaps, after all, it had only been a man smeared with mud from sleeping in the cleft. Who could say for sure? Intuition told him this wasn’t the case, however. There was more to it.
He and Susan were surrounded by the smell rising out of the cave – pervasive, insidious, funereal – and he should have been afraid, but his lower abdomen was prickling with something more like happy anticipation. He had expected to find pain here, bitter reminders, horror, but that wasn’t what he felt at all. The revelation of his own ambivalence shocked and thrilled him. He was about to step down into the cavern, when Susan stopped him.
“No. Absolutely not,” she said. She shined her light straight into his face. “We need to go back.”
“This is where it happened.” His eyes burned with discovery. “Right here.”
She trained the flashlight back at the clogged and poison-glutted pit. “Here?”
“Right here,” he said again, pointing into the hole with his cane.
When she leaned down to get a better look, he swung the wood hard against the back of her head so that she splashed to her knees. Teetering on the edge, she groaned.
Yes, he thought, yes, this was why I came.
This moment had been his purpose for over a year, perhaps even from the moment he hired Susan – who looked inordinately like his sister, all grown up, he realized at the time. The unconscious desires had ignited the moment she’d walked into his office; it was just that those trackless, inexplicable snows had not blown away until now. Here in the cavern, the repressed memories unburdened themselves at last. Details emerged from the drift. The way Candace had moaned as he removed her shirt button by muddy button. The way she choked and gurgled as he drowned her afterwards. Of course! How could he have forgotten? Had it just been too much to know? Had he simply been unable to live not knowing the reality of what and who he was? Well, he could live with it now. He embraced a freeing exaltation, and struck his assistant again.
Susan folded forward and then flopped onto her back at the bottom of the hole. It would be easy to bury her body when he was done. He could simply tell the driver she’d fallen in. Who would suspect an old man of wrongdoing? He fixed his distinguished gray hair at the thought of how easily the lies would come. As they ever had. Why, he could lie so well he could convince himself.
He twisted off his gilded cufflinks, and then popped them one at a time into the inside pocket where he wouldn’t lose them. Then he stuck his cane in the mud to make a stick on which he could hang his jacket and not spatter it.
He was careful as he climbed down on top of her, but also gleeful because he finally knew. There had never been a monster. The snow bank had been there to hide the simple fact that:
It had been him.
Jeremy Russell is a widely-published, award-winning author, critic and former newspaper reporter whose stories have appeared in a variety of anthologies and small press publications. He lives in Oakland, California with his wife and their cat, and earns a living in association communications. Check out him out online at www.jeremyrussell.com.
If you enjoyed his story, let him know by commenting below!