An Occurrence in the Striped Patch
John Cody Bennett
My name is Charles Marcellus, Jr., of Semmesville, Louisiana, and before you dismiss my tale as the ravings of a madman, I’d ask you to consider my story with an open mind and grant me a fair shake. Every bit of it is true, but I warn you it’s not easy to explain, or to accept.
It was 2015, and I was 33 years old, the same age as Jesus when he died, coincidentally. It was rumored that in the vicinity of Fouke, Arkansas, a legendary yeti-like creature dwelt in the swamps of the Striped Patch—pronounced (/straɪpɛd/) in Arkansan patois—and so, in the face of harsh ridicule from my Uncle Walter, the Church of Christ preacher, who always pooh-poohs my research and disdains my thirst for knowledge, I gathered my camping gear—including a canteen and a haversack of rations—dressed myself to the nines in my refined traveling clothes, strapped a Bowie knife to my belt, and drove north to seek my destiny in an untamed land.
My expedition’s only goal was to disclose to the public incontestable evidence of the so-called Boggy Creek Creature—perhaps with a few iPhone photos, or a short video—and it was this ambition, expressed with characteristic fervor, that my Uncle Walter deemed risible. That a “wild man” might exist in the Striped melon patch seemed abundantly obvious to me, but then again not everyone in the Deep South is as free-thinking as I am, or as intellectually curious.
For years, it’s true, I had been frustrated by the provincialism of my Louisiana upbringing and had found myself at odds with the generalized ignorance of the prevailing culture, particularly with that of my uncle and his more conservative tendencies. My origins, you see, are not of this region—my mother, Uncle Walter tells me, was a sailor, and a bit of a free spirit; my father, a Portlander—and probably it was Yankee genetics or an infancy on the Maine seacoast that had contributed a rare je ne sais quoi to my unique cognitive profile and investigative mind.
But forgive me, for I am diverting us from the matter at hand. Let us return to the facts.
Mid-June was upon us, and as hot as the devil, when at last I arrived in the old Striped territory after two and a half hours on the road and parked my truck in a campground along the banks of Boggy Creek and prepared myself for the evening as crickets chirped and frogs croaked and alligators bellowed. Familiarity with the woods is no longer as common today as it was in the American past, but I had deliberately streamed enough YouTube videos the night before to successfully build a fire, and as I settled onto my air mattress and zipped up the tent, I batted away mosquitos and listened carefully for the monster’s distinctive call: Om …Om … Om ….
Common sense suggested that chatting with the locals would aid me in my search for the Boggy Creek Creature, and yet, the next morning, when I stopped at the convenience store on Highway 71—at the Fouke Monster Mart, as it’s officially known—I was met only with raised eyebrows and a few half-hearted smiles. Perhaps I struck my tongue-tied interlocutors as far too sophisticated for this one-horse town. After all, as even Uncle Walter once reluctantly admitted, I cut a dashing and intimidating figure—like Marlon Brando in the Missouri Breaks, he remarked—with my Banana Republic chinos and black Dingo boots, my aviator scarf and fringed rodeo jacket, and my curled-brim Royal Flush Stetson purchased online at J. J. Hat Center in Midtown Manhattan. Oh, and lest I forget, I also wore a pair of Prada spr07f sunglasses to protect my eyes.
It occurred to me that maybe the townsfolk were ashamed of their history and of the notoriety they had gained through the years with films like The Legend of Boggy Creek, or Return to Boggy Creek, or Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues attracting tourists to this sleepy town and causing a ruckus. In that case, my presence was bound to make the residents uncomfortable, and so, attempting to remain inconspicuous, I thrust myself into a pantomimed evaluation of the local watermelon crop, pursing my lips as I deliberated between a Charleston Gray and a Crimson Sweet. Eventually, a cashier called out to me and compelled me to respond.
Young man, can I help you? the cashier said. You looking for the Boggy Creek Critter?
I feigned surprise. Who me? I said. Oh, no, I’m just looking at these melons. But thanks.
It was an obvious ruse—although not too obvious for the folks in this crowd.
The cashier shrugged. Suit yourself, she said. But our Boggy Creek Critter Museum is right here down this hallway to the right. Check it out if you got yourself a little time. It’s all true.
There was something offensive in this woman’s overweening politeness that irritated my sensibilities and prompted me to reject her help. No doubt like most other small-town Southern women she was a veritable busybody, indulging in low-blow gossip and policing the boundaries of acceptable behavior—you know the type—and so, after a few awkward minutes of masking my intentions and mimicking a customer, I slipped unnoticed into the Boggy Creek Creature Museum, for, as always, a little ingenuity surprises most people down here and carries the day.
The museum, however, was a disappointment from a research perspective, as it consisted of little more than a few framed Texarkana Daily News and Texarkana Gazette articles from the 1960s, as well as a gift shop with Boggy Creek T-shirts and collectible shot glasses and a couple of lengthy books by the cryptozoological scholar Kyle Blackthorpe, remembered mostly today for his 2001 magnum opus, The True and Complete History of North American Monsters. There was also a mural depicting the Boggy Creek Creature, and a recorded interview from Bobby and Elizabeth Calhoun, who reported the first sighting of the monster in 1963. According to their testimony—which I had heard many times—on the night of April 9th, a 6-foot tall, 200 pound, hairy ape-like creature had reached into their window and would have abducted Mrs. Calhoun had her husband not intervened. This was an old story from my standpoint, with no new insights or fresh mysteries to uncover, but as I imagined my Uncle Walter’s glee, his joy at the prospect of my frustrated hopes, I grew only more determined to press on and to continue with my quest.
And yet, before taking to the woods in pursuit of the Boggy Creek Creature, I decided as a testament of my resolve to depart the museum as stealthily as I could without drawing any more unsolicited assistance from these bothersome cashiers. Unfortunately, this was easier said than done, as the museum was no longer empty, and, in fact, the exit had been blocked by a hefty man in overalls and a camouflage cap who was reading one of the framed newspaper articles and muttering to himself. At each paragraph, he exclaimed loudly and threw up his hands, and the more I watched him stomping his feet, the more concerned I became for the sagacity of his wits.
Goodness me! the man said, growing ever more disgusted as he delved into the article. That durn critter! That monster! I should’ve stopped this madness years ago. Oh, goodness! Oh!
He turned to look at me with a helpless smile and waved a limp arm at the newspaper as if asserting some distance from its contents. He was red-faced and elderly — perhaps a farmer.
You look as disturbed by all this as I am, the man said. You must be a tourist. Am I right?
A tourist? I repeated in disbelief, cringing at the characterization and recoiling from the man’s words as if he had spit on me. I unwound my aviator scarf, tucked it into my haversack, jerked a handkerchief from my shirt pocket, and dabbed my face. Most certainly not, I’m no tourist. I’m as local as it gets. I’ve rambled in the Striped area since at least college. 15 years.
The man scratched his head. Local? he said. Well, sure wadn’t expecting that, son, not with them fancy doo-dads and your get-up and all. Heck, done thought I knew everybody in this town. Who’re your folks, young man? What’s your name? Whatcha do for a job? What’s your denomination? I’m Jefferson D. Jones, grower of Striped melons and such. Baptist, too. Deacon.
Here again, another nosy hayseed yokel with a litany of the most intrusive questions available to hand. I rolled my eyes and counseled patience to myself when dealing with this man.
Well, Mr. Jones, I said with reluctance, if we must engage in conversation, then just know that my name is Charles Marcellus, Jr., and I’m a distinguished alum of Harding University up in Searcy, Arkansas. I’m what people like you might consider an intellectual—an expert in a variety of fields, from American history to evolutionary biology—but to this point my employment has been confined to the leisure and hospitality industry, having been a barista, a fry-cook, and an innkeeper’s assistant for the past five years. In terms of religion, I am decidedly agnostic: I was raised Church of Christ, dabbled in Deism and FreeMasonry, but no longer have a preference. My parents’ names, I’m sorry to say, are not to be disclosed; but, if you’re curious, my mother died a quarter century ago, and my father, last I heard, was a Navy surgeon in Iraq.
Shoot, said Mr. Jones. That is interesting, Mr. Marcellus, Jr. Very, very, very interesting.
I sensed in this man a simplicity derived from decades on the farm, and it exhausted me. By now my feet had begun to cramp inside my Dingo boots, and the longer I dawdled in this poorly-ventilated room, the more unbearably warm I felt in my stylish, but tight-fitting, clothes.
It was nice to meet you, I said, but I must be going. I seek the Boggy Creek Creature, I—
Boggy Creek Critter! Mr. Jones shouted. Me too! Me too! He clenched his teeth, and his hands trembled as he flapped his arms and rocked from side to side. Me and my congregants at the Little Hope Baptist Church, well, you know, from a Scriptural perspective we ain’t ‘specially inclined to believe in such a Critter, ‘cause there ain’t no durn Darwins out here done persuaded us yet that we’s descended from monkeys. On the other hand, if’n in fact our interpretations of Scripture be mistaken, and the Critter in the Striped Patch does exist, then I thinks we knows what it is—a spawn of Satan, come down here to lead us into the dark. Tell you the truth, I been searching for that Critter since I’s 22, 23, 24 years old, he continued. Won’t swerve me, the durn sasquatch. I’ll hunt him in every eddy of the Sulphur, from bayou to bayou, from Chicken to Boggy. Won’t stand for no molestation against good Christian folk — I’ll string up the ole monkey and tack his albino pelt to the wall, and then I’ll thank God for making me righteous.
You mean you’d kill it? I asked Mr. Jones, as I shed my jacket so as not to overheat. I should not, however, have been shocked by this cruelty, for I had become long accustomed to the primitive barbarism of my homeland and to its people’s dark dreams and conspiratorial fantasies.
Well, sure! Mr. Jones confirmed. Why not? We all gots to go sometimes. Might as well.
As an ethical matter, this was more than I could handle, for never could I countenance the destruction of an extraordinary specimen like the Boggy Creek Creature. I had discussed exactly this scenario with Uncle Walter, who made light of my scruples and erupted into fits of laughter when I informed him of my principled opposition to harming the beast. Under no circumstance would I allow an injury to be inflicted on the monster; and, regardless of how foolish Uncle Walter considered my restraint, I would turn the other cheek even if the creature attacked me.
I could never abide this, I said, but Mr. Jones was not listening. He eased up beside me.
Now, boy, that there Boggy Creek Critter, he continued, he can disguise hisself. Can’t never tell whos or whats or wheres he might be. Got’s to watch all the angles. Tells you what, if’n you be serious ‘bout catching that durn Critter, then you’s and me’s, we oughta go twosies, know what I’m sayin’? Team-up, son, and put our heads together. Betcha it helps. Betcha it does.
I was appalled by Mr. Jones’s idea, for such a partnership struck me as the most abhorrent suggestion ever entertained by a sentient being. Not only were our methods incompatible, but to cede control of the expedition I had planned since I was at least 26 years old was out of the question. For half a decade, my research into the origins of the creature and its whereabouts in the Striped Patch swamps had given my life purpose, and I had steeled myself for the revelation of a mystery beyond all human comprehension. I had developed a schema for how everything should pan out, but then along comes Mr. Jefferson D. Jones with his backwoods fanaticism and his Baptist prejudices and defiles my construction and collapses it like a sandcastle. He was a competitor now, an opponent—supplied by powers above, if indeed there be powers above, to test my skill and prove my competence. I was determined to fight him, and never would I yield.
Forgive me, sir, I said, as I concealed contempt beneath a veneer of politeness, but I cannot entertain your request, and could never accede to it. The Boggy Creek Creature is a spectacular entity, a being of such metaphysical reality that only a seeker of truth might dare—
Wait, what? What’s that? interrupted Mr. Jones. Whatcha talking ‘bout, boy? Say what?
But let us jump now to later that evening and to the expansion of my search into the dark heart of the Boggy Creek legend. At this point, I was back in my sticky tent and roughing it in the Arkansas wilds beneath a celestial canvas so bright that, amateur though I was, I felt confident that if given the chance I could use its stars to navigate a dinghy down Boggy Creek to the Gulf of Mexico and out to the Atlantic. I had acquired a companion—a daddy longlegs that squatted on the brim of my hat—and together as we waited for daylight we pondered our extraordinary situation. Who could have imagined this? I asked the spider—rhetorically, of course—Who could have anticipated that at 33 years old I would be within reach of a breakthrough that would not only silence my critics, but would usher in a new account of humanity’s significance? After all, as I have argued many times with my Uncle Walter, if the Boggy Creek Creature does exist in the way that I have posited, then Homo sapiens sapiens as a species will be forced to reckon with the uncomfortable fact that it is no longer the center of the universe; that other entities are as evolved and enlightened as it; and that its dreams and folktales and timeworn mumbo-jumbos are nothing but a bunch of pathetic attempts to boost a fragile ego.
Not only that, but American society, especially the pseudo-feudalism of the South, will have to change, too, for we as a people are unabashedly deferent to precisely these sorts of delusions—think Manifest Destiny, the Lost Cause, the Space Age, you name it. Sad to say, despite the cosmopolitanism I’ve inherited from my Yankee forebears, even I at times have fallen prey to this mortifyingly obtuse form of rah-rah exceptionalism. For example, I can recall once as a kid when my Uncle Walter showed me a movie—it was John Wayne’s The Green Berets, I’m fairly certain—and I can remember to this day how that film’s patriotic tableau in the Vietnamese jungle pricked my heart and stirred inside me a sympathy for all kinds of grandiose enterprise, even quixotic ones. For good or for ill, I am no longer under the thumb of those tyrannical forces that labored to shape me in the past—not Uncle Walter, not the Church of Christ, not Harding University, none of them—nor am I some unschooled abecedarian who chases trends or conforms to traditionalist mores. Oh, no: my truth, you understand, is quite easily discerned: I am my own man; and, unfortunately, a man without people, without a country.
There was never a choice, never a chance, never an opportunity for otherwise, I said to the daddy longlegs as I flicked him loose from my hat and scooted him outdoors and sealed up the tent. Because accepting the parameters of a place like Semmesville—or, I suppose, wherever it is you’re from — is like relinquishing one’s arms before battle even commences. It’s a bad play, I reassured myself, and no way to live, for I had made my bed, and, like it or not, I must lie in it.
Nevertheless, I didn’t sleep a wink that night, nor would I for the next couple of evenings until I had reached that liminal zone between Boggy Creek and the Sulphur River, where the great Striped Patch stretches across miles of marsh dotted with weeping willows and cypress trees that erupt like coriaceous pillars from out of the mist. The scent of the beast had become pungent beyond belief, and the longer I pursued the monster through these ghastly swamps, the more sickening became the excretions that wafted to my nose. The Striped Patch, in case you’re unfamiliar with the 1542 Hernando De Soto expedition, is the South’s most ancient watermelon plantation, having been cultivated by that infamous conquistador only a few months before succumbing to the ravages of a fever. It is a nasty and precarious place, and yet, without any semblance of shame, I had stripped myself of my clothes—with the exception of my shirt and undershorts, my hat, and my shades—for conditions in the Arkansas humidity were far too unbearable for civilized dress. Indeed, it seemed that this world of the Patch was like a painter’s imagining of the primeval dawn, and I felt certain as I followed the monster’s trail, that soon enough—perhaps at any moment—the creature would reveal itself to me, fulfilling my dream of acquisition and leaving to my possession a piece of the lost thread, the missing link, the truth.
I continued to trudge along and noticed around me in the muck the sets of large hoof-like tracings that resembled the tracks of a goat, so unusual in composition that if I had not already researched them in Blackthorpe’s Monsters, I would not have believed a hominid like the Boggy Creek Creature could have produced such markings. Clearly, I was within reach of the creature’s lair, and yet at the same time, I discerned now in the far distance the faint cries of my adversary as I stumbled at dusk in the underbrush with only the light of my iPhone to illuminate my steps.
Critter, floated the words of Jefferson D. Jones across the swamp. Critter. Critter. Critter!
I was enraged by the man’s pursuit, but uncertain of how to stop him. Earlier, perhaps two or three days ago—although who could say with any accuracy in this monotonous place?—I had parked my truck at an intersection of Highway 71 beside a historic marker so riddled with bullets as to be practically unreadable. No doubt Mr. Jones had discovered the location of my vehicle and exploited my progress, and, in my efforts to shake him, I wended carefully through this circuitous maze of watermelon vines, but worried that I might soon foreclose the possibility of finding my way back. My canteen and hardtack rations had been finished long ago, and I realized that to survive in this wilderness I must learn to live off the land, or else perish. It was a sad recognition on my part that the warnings of my Uncle Walter had not been entirely unmerited, and, although I fought the instinct to retreat, my spirits were low, and my heart bitter.
Let me just … let me just take … let me just take a bite of this watermelon, I said, as I unsheathed my Bowie knife and sliced open the hard rind of a melon and sank my teeth into its slathering flesh. It’s good, I said to the creeping lizards onshore and to the wild boars in the briars and to the brain-eating amoebas in the watery depths. A bite’s all. A bite. I needed this. I need—
But, suddenly, from downriver in the creature’s lair—or else from beside me, I could not tell which—a trumpeted sound of rattling labored breath interrupted my musings and cascaded from out of the swamps and struck my ears like a gunshot’s violence discharged at close range.
Om … Om … Om … came the echoing call from deep in the Striped Patch, which was followed by a crash of splashing footsteps and the shrieks of unfortunate animals in the throes of their doom. The Boggy Creek Creature was approaching—there was no other explanation, nor could I believe otherwise—and, as a precaution, I crouched among the cypress knees and the saw-palmettos and readied my iPhone for the long-awaited photo that would vindicate my trip.
Om … Om … Om … intoned the creature from across the Sulphur River, and as the monster rumbled forth from out of the jungle, I began to dream of a triumphant return to the town of Semmesville, and also of the downcast expression on my Uncle Walter’s face as he stood before his Church of Christ congregation and acknowledged my victory. It was like that final Bogart moment from In a Lonely Place—my favorite film-noir, and Uncle Walter’s too—in which the hero’s knowing smirk collapses into chagrined helplessness after he attempts to strangle and suffocate his fiancé for her imagined transgressions. I couldn’t wait to hear the words from my uncle’s lips—chanted, maybe, or else sung as a hymn—You were right. You were right. You were right. I take it all back. A creature exists. It lives. It’s alive. You told us so.
I did, didn’t I? I said to Uncle Walter, and yet, incredibly, at that moment in the Striped Patch, amid Critter, Critter, Critter and Om … Om … Om … I discovered for the first time that the sand beneath my boots no longer supported my weight, and that ingenuity alone could not keep me afloat in this murky abyss. A portrait of myself and of my parents on the Maine seacoast bubbled up from the recesses of my memory, but provided no solace and answered nothing. I had swooned in the heat and collapsed in the swamp: it’s true—the facts support me—I swear it.
Om … Om … Om … Boggy Creek Critter. Critter. Critter. Om … Om … Om .…
I awakened with my hands tied among watermelons in a scarred land wet with its history.
What’s happening here? I demanded. Where’s the Creature? Where is it? Hey? Hey!
Aw, hey, yourself! came the voice of Mr. Jones, his words disembodied as they darted through the watermelon fields like the flight of a wasp. I done told you, Critter, Critter, Critter, that you can’t swerve me. Them disguises and such ain’t nothing at all to these eyes. I sees you.
Amid the fear and uncertainty of the moment, I jerked at my restraints and flailed naked in the mud, tasting still on my tongue that sticky-sweetness of watermelon: my first bite, my last.
No! I said. No, it’s a mistake! I’m not the Creature. I’m not! Uncle Walter, help me! Help!
But my pleas fell on insensate ears and made no impression on my eldritch custodian.
Aww, Critter, Critter, Critter, said Mr. Jefferson D. Jones. A sad piece of work. A monster.
And so, without further unnecessary digressions, I beg for your help—if indeed help remains a possibility in this godforsaken Striped shadowbox—beseeching you all to call Uncle Walter and summon him to my aid, to ask him to come and take me home, for I am weary of my circumscribed circumstances, and the burdens of this sad bestial life are too much for me to bear.
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John Cody Bennett is an educator at The Birch Wathen Lenox School in New York City; a graduate of Sewanee: the University of the South; and a Fulbright scholar from Louisiana. His work has appeared in Across the Margin, Bright Flash Literary Review, the Bookends Review, and elsewhere. Read the author’s commentary on “An Occurrence in the Striped Patch.”