True Story, Issue #13
"Beasts among Us" by Erica Berry
True Story, Issue #13
True Story is a new home for longform nonfiction narratives. Published monthly by the editors of Creative Nonfiction, each pocket-size issue of True Story showcases one exceptional essay by one exceptional writer. From issue to issue, this new mini-magazine features the widest possible variety of voices and styles and subjects.
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From "Beasts among Us" by Erica Berry
Mark Schackelman was in his early thirties, a night watchman at the St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children on the outskirts of Jefferson, Wisconsin, when he saw the beast. It was 1936. The home for developmentally disabled youth included a former Franciscan convent. Its sprawling grounds comprised orchards, gardens, a religious sanctuary, stone buildings the color of old teeth, and, allegedly, several Native American burial mounds.
This whole swath of southern Wisconsin is filled with animal-shaped burial mounds, which date back as far as 500 BCE. An estimated 80 percent of the mounds are now gone, built over or plowed under, like the bird that appears to have once had a quarter-mile wingspan near the Wisconsin River, not far from present-day Muscoda. Still, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources, this region is America’s hub of “effigy mound culture.” To Linda Godfrey, the Wisconsin cryptozoologist and reporter who wrote about Schackelman’s sighting, the mounds are “astounding,” and their proximity to the sighting “always seemed more than coincidental.”
Schackelman was out walking the grounds, a bit before midnight, when he saw it: a shaggy, dog-faced creature with a muscular human torso. It was kneeling on one of the mounds, digging into the mussed earth.
Slowly, Schackelman backed away. The creature, too, backed away. At some point, it ran, but it ran like a man: two paws on the ground, two in the night air. Schackelman was a heavyweight boxer. He was also a devout Catholic who rarely went to the movies. That is to say: Werewolf of London had come out a year earlier, but who knows if he saw it? What he did see, when he went back to the mound the next morning, was the earth torn by the rake of claws. The echo of a beast.
That night, during his daily rounds, he returned to the area. Again, midnight, but he was carrying a flashlight like a club. Again, the creature, and now it stood up to greet him. It was covered in thick, dark hair and smelled like long-dead meat. It had fangs and was over six feet tall. Its thumb and forefinger seemed shrunken, so that it appeared to have only three fingers. It looked him in the eye and offered him a three-syllable lump of noise, something between human speech and animal growl. Schackelman began to pray to God. He saw the creature sneer at him, and then he saw it start to back away. He prayed again, this time: thank you. Even after the beast was gone, its dead smell stained the night.
Later, Schackelman told the story to his wife, and then he swept up his words and made her promise to keep them secret. That, for a while, was that.
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