THE SWORN STATEMENT OF ENOCH FLAGG
A Short Story by Lewis Smith
Rendered before the Jackson County Criminal Court on the morning of April 12th, 20**
Before you say anything about my story, yes, I do realize I am under oath. And yes, I understand that you may not believe my story, Your Honor. Frankly, no one believes me – not my friends, not my mom, not the police. Frankly, if I had not seen what I did with my own two eyes, I would not believe it myself. So your skepticism does not surprise me at all.
But the fact remains that Gene Turpin is dead, and that I am the only one who was there when he died. As for the others, I can make a pretty good guess as to what happened to them, based on what I saw and heard. So, honestly, I don’t care if you believe me or not. I don’t want to go to jail – you have no idea how badly I want not to go to jail! – but if I do, our system has failed. You will have failed. I know in my heart I am innocent of their deaths. Gene’s, and the others’ as well. I told them not to go in there. I warned Gene, too, right there before the end. I knew something bad was in there. But no one believed me, and now they are dead. So, as you can tell, by this point I am used to people not believing me.
They wanted me to take them fishing, you see. Gene, Rob, Virginia, Kassi, and Craig were all city raised, and none of them had ever done more than drop a line in the pond at Graham Park to catch a bluegill or a mud cat. They wanted to get out on a real lake, in a boat, and catch something that would put up a fight. I grew up on Bakers Canyon Lake, and my Dad had left me his cabin up there when he passed five years ago. It had a boat slip and a nice, twenty-foot Bass Tracker in the shed. When Gene found out about that, he insisted that I take the whole group of them fishing on spring break.
I didn’t really want to go – there was something about the lake’s north end that I never had liked. The water was too dark, and too still, even on windy days. I didn’t like the way the cliffs seemed to lean over us whenever we fished there, and those moss-covered cave openings gave me nightmares as a kid. The lower end of the lake was fine – sand beaches and lots of trees. But the canyon always gave me a bad vibe.
But they all pleaded and begged, and to be honest, I would have done just about anything that Kassi asked me to – I was always sweet on her, and she and Craig seemed to be on the brink of breaking up. One more good fight between them and she might become available, you know? So when she joined the chorus I said sure, why not, Padre Island is too crowded anyway, plus it’s a hellaceous long drive down to the Texas coast from Missouri State.
It was funny how they all scrambled to get their fishing licenses purchased, and all the gear they bought! I tried telling them that Dad had at least a dozen rod and reel sets up at the cabin, but they all insisted on buying brand new fishing gear. Virginia even got one of these ridiculous vests at the Outdoor Pro shop, one with all the pockets and zippers for putting hooks and lures and lead weights in. Gene got him a big old Cowboy hat to keep the sun off his head and stuck a couple of trout flies in the band on either side so there would be no doubt that he was an angler and not a goat roper! Did the deputies ever find that hat?
Get to the point? I am, Your Honor, it’s just a long story, and if you want to understand what happened, you must hear all of it. We loaded up in two Jeeps and headed up to Bakers Canyon as soon as our last class dismissed Friday – all of us are pre-law, and Dr. Rudoff had scheduled a mid-term for Friday afternoon before spring break, so none of us could take off any earlier. But it was only a three-hour drive from the University to the lake, and all of us were finished with the mid-term by two o’clock, so we got there with an hour or so of daylight to spare. Gene wanted to go swimming, but I knew how cold that water was this early in the year and stayed out. He jumped in for about five minutes, and that was all he could stand! We unloaded our gear, and I drove down to the gas station to fill up three cans’ worth – Dad had always taught me to drain the tank on the boat at the end of the summer, so the gas wouldn’t go bad over the winter and mess up the engine. I filled up the boat before we went in for the night, and then everyone picked a bedroom. Sure enough, I heard Kassi and Craig fighting through the wall around midnight, and the next morning I woke up and found him sleeping on the couch. I’m embarrassed to say it now, but I was really glad. He was a jerk and she deserved better. Dear God, they all deserved better than what finally happened! But I am getting ahead of myself.
Bakers Canyon Lake was built back in the Depression by workers from the WPA. Bakers Creek was a big, swift flowing tributary of the Arkansas River that ran for a hundred miles or more through the Ozarks before dumping down into the flatlands. There were all kinds of Indian camps up and down it, mostly underwater now. When I was a boy I would find lots of arrowheads along the lake shore during dry years, and my Dad hung a couple of picture frames full of them up in the cabin. I wish to God I had taken them down and sold them to that collector from Texas who liked them so much! Maybe then . . .
But I didn’t, and Virginia was absolutely fascinated with them. That first night she asked me to take the frames off the wall, and everyone gathered around the table as I showed them off and told about finding them. Well, it has been a dry year, as you know. The lake was almost six feet below normal, prime hunting conditions. But, Bakers Canyon is also a Corps of Engineers lake, and in recent years they have gotten downright nasty about folks picking up artifacts on the shores. Some of the beaches I used to hunt on the lower end, the wide end of the lake where the best camps are, actually have big signs warning of fines and even jail for picking up an artifact. When I told them about that, the group calmed down a bit, but Virginia kept going back to the wall and studying those arrowheads.
The next day was a lot of fun and made me think that my worries were for nothing. We went out and fished all day down on the south end and caught a bunch of channel cat; we got out on one of the beaches and waded and swam for a bit – although I pointed out the big sign warning folks against picking up artifacts in case my friends got any ideas! A five-thousand-dollar fine was more than any arrowhead was worth – although now, honestly, I wish we’d gone ahead and taken our chances.
That night we fried up the fish we caught, and I dug out Dad’s old recipe for hush puppies and we made those, and some French fries. Kassi had avoided talking to Craig all day long, and that night as we sat around the den shooting the breeze and watching movies, she made a point of sitting by me. Craig sulked the whole time, but I just smiled and ignored him. I thought things were working out just the way I wanted them to. Then Virginia spoke up.
“Do you think that the Corps is watching the other end of the lake like they are those beaches?” she said.
“It would be a lot harder for them,” I said. “That end of the lake is narrow, with steep cliffs on either side. There are lots of trees and overhangs along the shoreline, and caves that go back pretty deep in places.”
“I just want to find one arrowhead before I go home,” she said. “Are there any up there around the caves?”
That was a complicated question. The old timers who had lived in the area before the lake went in all talked about the bluff shelters and caves that used to overlook Baker’s Creek – but they also said that it was bad luck to dig there. Why, no one could say. But if you look at the local records, in the eighty years or so since Bakers Canyon Lake was built, nearly a hundred people have died there. Twenty or so of those were run of the mill drownings, mostly on those big beaches down near the dam – people swimming too far, out or getting caught in sudden squalls that capsized their boats. But almost eighty people have simply gone missing in that lake. Bodies never found, just drifting boats or empty life vests. Now, that sounds like a lot, and it is – but they were spread out over such a long period of time, so no one paid much attention. The lake is deep, and there are lots of boulders and underwater ledges where a body could hang up and never float to the top.
However, in most of those cases, the missing people were last seen up there on the north end, in the canyon where the caves come close to the lake shore. A few search parties had ventured into the caves looking for clues, but nothing had ever been found. At least, no one would admit to finding anything. Now I wonder. Those searches never seemed to go on for very long before being called off.
But Kassi was looking at me with her big blue eyes – my God, your honor, that girl was so beautiful! Hair black as midnight, halfway down to her waist, and skin like fine bronze! Virginia looked so eager as she asked, and with Kassi now expressing her interest, I gave in. I did. I never had liked that end of the lake, but for the girls’ sake I figured I’d try to find an Indian camp washing in.
“Tell you what,” I said. “Tomorrow morning you guys can sleep in, and I’ll take the boat out early and try to scout us out a campsite where you can find a point or two. If I see a likely spot, we can head up there tomorrow afternoon. Fair enough?”
Virginia have me a hug, Kassi’s eyes lit up, and Gene gave me a high five. The only one who didn’t seem to like the idea was Craig, but frankly his happiness didn’t matter much to me at that moment. We sat up and drank a while longer – they all drank more than me, because I was determined to get up early and find them a spot. In fact, when I went upstairs a little while later, I dug around in the closet of Dad’s old bedroom and found a box that he had kept there when I was a kid. If Kassi wanted to find an arrowhead, I was going to make sure she did – and everyone else who wanted to look, for that matter. Dad had a shoebox full of points that he’d never had time to make a frame for, and I intended to sow a pocketful of them along the shoreline for my friends to pick up. It wouldn’t matter if I found a site or not, they were going to find some points!
I woke up nice and early the next morning and slid out of bed feeling pretty great. Kassi had kissed me long and hard after Craig stumped off to the room he had intended to share with her. I was already planning on asking her to dinner and a night club when we got back from break. I had a smile on my face as I walked down to the boat slip at dawn, arrowheads rattling in my pocket. The sky was clear and blue, and the sun was rising over the far shore of the lake, looking as bright and radiant as I have ever seen it. I fired up the motor and headed up lake, ready for what I thought was going to be one of the most enjoyable days of my life. God, if I only knew!
It was a couple of miles up from the cabin before the lake narrowed into the canyon, and another half mile after that before the caves and overhangs started. I made it up there in about ten minutes, running the boat wide open and enjoying the wind in my hair. There was a huge rock that stuck out of the water in the middle of the lake just before the cliffs drew in – we called it Split Rock, since it appeared to have broken off one of the cliffs long ago. Dad and I used to fish around it some. I steered past it and began scouring the banks in earnest. They were mostly vertical on this end, and you could still see the remains of Indian petroglyphs on some of the rock faces. A half mile or so past Split Rock I saw where a fresh landslide had come off of the east bank, leaving a hundred yards or so of beach exposed at the base of the cliff, with several downed trees lying in the water’s edge. It was the kind of erosion my Dad always taught me to look for; a fresh slough where prehistoric artifacts would be exposed. I also saw the mouth of a cave there that I had never seen before – I think the dirt slide may have revealed it. It was in deep shadow, at the back of the narrow strip of sand and rock, with the cliff rising vertically above it a hundred feet or more.
The minute I got out of the boat, I realized I needn’t brought any artifacts to seed the beach with. There were white flakes of chert everywhere, and I picked up three or four points in the few minutes I spent scouring the beach. Then I took the ones I brought and dropped them in the edge of the water, on either side of where I’d beached the boat, for the length of the shoreline.
As I turned to go, that cave caught my eye. I wondered if there was anything in it – I’d heard stories of fabulous artifacts being found in Ozark caves over the years, and honestly, picking up those points had given me a bit of the old artifact fever I used to feel when hunting with my Dad. As I walked across the beach towards the mouth of the cave, I saw a very worn remnant of a petroglyph in the cliff next to it. I thought it was a sunburst design of some sort, with long crooked rays shooting out of the center orb. Only as I got closer did I see that it looked more like a big spider or crab motif. I was still studying it when the stench hit me.
I’ve hunted and fished for most of my life, and I know what dead things smell like. There was something dead in that cave, and it was NASTY! The closer I got, the worse it was. I did stand at the entrance and look back as far as I could, but I couldn’t really see anything. I heard something, though – some sort of shuffling or skittering sound, pretty far back away from the entrance. I figured it was wolves or coyotes, or maybe even possums, feasting on whatever dead critter was back there, and made my way back to the boat.
I don’t know if that smell physically made me ill, or if I had gotten ahold of a bad piece of fish the night before, but as I motored back down the lake towards the cabin, I felt sicker and sicker. My bowels were seizing up, and I didn’t know if I was going to make it to the bathroom or not! When I pulled into the boat slip, I tied a single half hitch around the docking post and did a tight legged, penguin style run up to the cabin. The others were starting to stir, but I ignored them and went straight to the upstairs bathroom – Kassi and Viriginia were in the downstairs one putting makeup on, and I could not wait.
Stomach bug, food poisoning, whatever it was, that bout of diarrhea saved my life. I was in the bathroom for a half an hour, and when I came out I felt weak as a kitten. Rob was teasing me about melting the toilet, and I told him he had room to talk – I’d smelled his apartment before, and it was like standing downwind from a landfill! I stretched out on the couch, and Virginia came and sat next to me.
“Did you find anything?” she asked, eyes still big.
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I found a great beach up past Split Rock, flint lying everywhere! You guys should be able to find lots of stuff there. Just let me rest for an hour or so, and I’ll take you on up.”
Rob joined her, throwing his arm around her shoulder and kissing the top of her blonde head. They really were a great couple.
“Why don’t you let me take them?” he said. “You look like death warmed over, and I bet you’ll rest better with us out of the house. Gene’s still asleep, but Craig and I will be glad to take the girls. Just show me where the spot is on the lake map. I’ve driven my Dad’s boat many times; I promise not to mess yours up!”
I should have said no, Your Honor. I know that now. I should have said no, made them wait, taken them up myself, and kept them away from that damned cave! But I was weak and still feeling pretty sick – I thought I’d have to run back to the bathroom, but as it turned out, I didn’t. So I told Rob to take the boat and showed him the spot on the lake map. They were whooping and hollering as they headed down for the boat. Kassi was wearing a black one-piece bathing suit, and she looked like an absolute goddess. Moments later I heard the engine start up and then fade away as they headed up the lake. That was the last time I ever saw or heard them – well, saw them anyway. There was . . . there was that sound! Dear God, that sound! I can’t . . . please, can we have a brief recess, Your Honor? (Sobs)
At this point Judge Hollister ordered a 30 minute recess, and then Mr. Flagg resumed his statement.
Thank you, Your Honor. I’ve tried hard not to think about that afternoon, even when I’ve been required to talk about it. But recounting the story from the beginning like this – well, it got to me. I think I am OK now. Where was I?
Gene woke up about a half hour after they left, none the worse for his liquor intake. In all the years I knew him, I don’t think he ever had a hangover. I was feeling a little more settled by then, and even got up to help him find a frying pan. The others had eaten energy bars for breakfast, but he wanted bacon and eggs! I had a couple of eggs myself, and my stomach began to settle down.
I didn’t really get concerned until around one o’clock. I’d made it up to that isolated beach in twenty minutes; even allowing for them going slower to search for it, they should have been there in a half hour or less. The beach wasn’t that big, either – around a hundred yards long and less than twenty across at its widest point, with nothing but sheer cliffs behind it. I’d dropped twenty arrowheads along the waterline, more than enough for everyone to find something – not to mention the artifacts that were already there! But they’d been gone for five hours now, and I was beginning to worry. Gene and I talked awhile, and then I decided to act. I couldn’t get that foul-smelling cave out of my mind. Bears are still active in this part of Missouri and can be pretty aggressive when they emerge from hibernation. I hadn’t seen any tracks, but rain could’ve washed them away. What if my friends had been attacked?
I went to the next cabin up the shore from Dad’s, where Mr. Pettigrew lived. He and Dad had been friends, and he was glad to see me and more than willing to let me use his boat. Gene got two flashlights, and I found my Dad’s old Army .45 and grabbed a pocketful of shells. By two o’clock we were headed up the lake looking for our friends.
I saw that the boat was still on the beach while we were still nearly a mile off, and as I drew closer I saw that not one of our friends was anywhere on that beach. I’ll never know which one of them went into the cave first, but I would bet anything it was Virginia. She always was too curious for her own good, and going out with a macho dude like Rob, she always felt she had to prove herself fearless.
When we got there, we both saw the footprints. Four sets of tracks leading into the cave, none leading out. The stench pouring from it was stronger than ever. Gene gave me a look as he caught his first whiff of it.
“Ugh, what IS that? Why on earth would they go in there?” he asked.
“Herd instinct!” I said with a laugh – but I was scared now. Why would they all go in? As we neared the entrance, I saw something that made me stop. Scattered in the sand, next to a woman’s footprints – I am pretty sure they were Kassi’s, her foot was longer than Virginia’s – was a pile of arrowheads. Four complete ones and two broken ones, lying together where they were dropped. I studied her tracks. It looked as if she was going to walk past the cave, then dropped her finds, doubled back, and went straight in. I noticed those last few tracks were mainly the balls of her feet. She had been running! What had she heard? What made her run into that awful, dark place?
“I have to go in there,” I said, and Gene handed me one of the flashlights. “You can wait out here if you want to.”
“They’re my friends, too, Enoch!” he said.
And so both of us entered the cave. It was much bigger than it looked from the outside. There was a passage you could stand up in that went back maybe ten feet or so, and then it opened up into a large chamber, probably a hundred feet across and fifty feet deep. Right where the passage widened into the chamber, I saw a flip flop lying there with a plastic sunflower on the thong. It was Kassi’s.
The stench of rot was overpowering, and as I stepped into the chamber, looking for movement, something soft and wet landed on my forehead. I felt it move, and when I picked it off with my hand, I saw it was a maggot. I shone the light directly over my head and saw something so grotesque it made me freeze in place for just a moment, another maggot barely missing my face as it dropped.
There was a deer hanging there, dead for some time, crawling with fly larva. It was wrapped up in white, translucent cables, almost like a mummy, with only its rotting head hanging out the bottom. As I shone the light above us, I saw several other bundles hanging from the cave’s ceiling, which was at least twenty feet above us. Each one was wrapped in the same white filaments, bigger than clotheslines. One of them had tufts of black fur sticking out, and I could see a massive paw poking through the cocoon that encased it – a paw with long, sharp claws. What could wrap a bear up like that? I wondered.
“I found Virginia’s vest,” Gene said. It was lying about twenty feet in front of me, halfway to the back of the cave. As I grew closer, I saw there was some sticky, greenish-black fluid that had dribbled on it. When I touched the end of my finger to it, I felt a sharp, burning sensation, followed by numbness.
That was when I heard it. A muffled, squealing cry, a voice faint but unmistakably human. And unmistakably Kassi’s.
Near the back of the cave was another opening, about ten feet wide and perfectly round. Black roots of some sort were sprouting from its edges in a semicircle, thick and dark and glistening slightly in the beams of our flashlights. But the faint cry had not come from inside that dark opening; it had come from above our heads and in front of us. Our beams swept through the darkness until they came to rest on another dangling bundle – a bundle that was moving.
We ran over to the point directly beneath it, shining our lights over our heads. It was Kassi, I am sure of that. All I could see of her head as it dangled above us was a single lock of her long, dark hair hanging down – and one eye, frantically rolling as it peered at us from a gap in the ghastly cables that trussed her up there above our heads, more than ten feet up.
“Hang on, we’ll get you down!” I shouted.
I am not entirely sure, but I think the word she tried to say through the foul cords that covered her mouth was “Run!”
There was no way for us to reach her. We needed a ladder, a tree, something to let us get up there above our heads where she dangled like a grasshopper in a spider’s web. That was the analogy that sprang into my mind at that moment, as I swept my light around the cave trying to find something that would help us reach her. That was when my beam swept across that dark opening again.
My first thought was that the black roots we’d seen protruding from the edges had suddenly grown – grown by six feet or more and increased greatly in diameter. But then the rest of the creature hauled itself out of that monstrous burrow, pulled by those huge, long legs, and the sight blasted my mind free of its moorings.
A spider? Ha! Calling that thing a spider is like calling a giant squid a hunk of calamari! I guess, of all the creatures I have ever seen on this good earth, it probably resembled a spider more than any of them. But that doesn’t mean it WAS one. And I don’t think it was anything ever meant to exist on earth, either. It had way too many legs, for one thing – at least a dozen of them. Black, thick as tree trunks, hauling its awful bulk into the main part of the cave. Its head was six feet across, and when it opened its mouth, six fangs spread apart to reveal an opening big enough to swallow a moose. Or a man. Its abdomen was huge and swollen, palpitating with odd bulges here and there – one of them suspiciously man-shaped. It made no noise at all; no hiss, no roar, no sound except those giant legs scraping the wall and floor of the cave – the same sound I had heard faintly from outside that morning!
Gene froze to the spot. I shouldn’t say this, but I am under oath, aren’t I? The last thing I saw was a dark spot spreading across the front of his pants as he wet himself in terror. My bladder followed suit seconds later. Then four of those awful, multi-jointed legs snatched him up and pulled him towards that dreadful maw. A single, black fang, dribbling with the same ichor I’d seen on Virginia’s vest, shot out and plunged into his throat, and he screamed like a child for a second or two before going limp.
I ran. I dropped everything and ran for the mouth of the cave, that monstrous hell-beast skittering and slathering behind me. How big was it? Too big! That’s all I can say. I got out with those hideous legs snatching at my back; the deputy saw the slashes in my shirt when I called him to the cabin that night. I jumped into the boat, frantically pushing it off and gunning the engine. As I looked back one more time, I saw those same nightmarish “roots” sticking out of the cave opening in a semicircle, waving and feeling around for me. I get the feeling it didn’t like the sun. I also saw the odd petroglyph I had seen that morning, fully illuminated in the afternoon sun, and suddenly realized it was a crude representation of the thing I had seen in the cave. That was when I began laughing maniacally, laughing and crying at the same time, racing down the lake with the engine at full throttle - and then I blacked out.
When I came to, it was nearly dark. I was drifting in the open waters of the lake, my boat out of gas. I guess I had pulled back on the throttle as I fell, and had been cutting semicircles across the lake’s surface for hours. How I didn’t hit anything, I’ll never know. An old fisherman, returning to his cabin after a day down by the dam, saw me and pulled alongside, offering to tow me back to the cabin. I beached the boat and walked into my Dad’s summer fishing cabin, seeing the things my friends had left behind, and knowing that I would never see any of them again. I broke down and wept, sitting at the kitchen table and crying like a baby. There was a bottle of Scotch there, still half full from the night before. I downed it to the last drop, and then called the police. That’s why I registered as over the legal limit when they did the breathalyzer.
The deputies didn’t believe me, and when the search party found the cave, all they found was the vest and the flip-flop. I still say you should have those black stains analyzed, Your Honor! The opening at the back of the cave was gone, and so were the hanging carcasses. So was Kassi. So was Gene. Gone, all of them. Dead, and it was all my fault. That’s all I’ve got to say, Your Honor, and it is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, whether you believe it or not.
End of statement