Written by Chad Boudreau
Sheriff Maklin rarely went into the backwoods at night. He preferred his easy chair and television to brisk air and biting insects. The dirt track along which he now walked didn’t deserve to be called a road. It was too narrow and too rough for any sensible motor vehicle. In the light of the day, it was favored as a nature trail by some of the town’s more energetic folk, especially youth who sought the swimming hole beyond the old mill that lay at the other end of the trek. But at night, road and woods fought for control of the land, with the road near losing, so thick and dark were the trees and brush that hugged the track. Branches stretched overhead from both sides, sometimes touching to block out the starry sky.
Mrs. Drexler shuffled alongside Sheriff Maklin, wearing nothing but a nightgown and a housecoat, the latter of which she held closed with one hand. She wasn’t wearing shoes, just slippers. She was a stick-insect of a woman in her mid-fifties, with more blemishes on her face than teeth in her head. She was rambling on about her son, who had not returned home from a foray into the night.
On the other side of Maklin was his deputy. He insisted on being called Deputy at all times, even when not on duty. He wore his uniform most times too, except when bowling and setting rabbit snares. He was wearing it now, of course, since both he and Sheriff Maklin had still been on duty when Mrs. Drexler had burst into The Pub, hooting and hollering that her boy was missing.
“You’re a rotten mother!” Deputy couldn’t hold back his frothing anger any longer. “Lettin’ your boy play way the hell out here. What was you thinkin’, woman!?” Deputy panted, needing to catch his breath. He glared down the length of his flashlight beam.
The shouting had a happy side effect. Mrs. Drexler fell silent, for a moment. Five steps and then—“I know, I know,” she muttered, shaking her head. The sound of her curlers knocking together could be heard over their collective footfalls on the loosely packed dirt. “I cursed me old bones all the way to The Pub. Don’t think I didn’t. I says to myself all the time, ‘Gertie, you’re far too soft on that boy. You’re lettin’ him get away with too much.’”
She sighed. “But it don’t make a lick of difference how much I tells him to smarten up and do right. He just ain’t got the common sense, Sheriff, you see? Might as well be talkin’ to the dog. The dog gives me the same blank look when I tells it to not fart in the house.”
On Maklin’s right, Deputy muttered under his breath. Maklin couldn’t make out the words but rightly assumed they were exclamations of disappointment directed at Mrs. Drexler’s parenting. On his left, her prattling continued.
“—I was so happy he was gettin’ out of the house. Didn’t want to question it, you know, for fear he’d go back to stayin’ indoors all hours. So he come out here most nights. Bashin’ frogs and eatin’ wild mushrooms by the light of the moon.”
“How did you know what he was up to?” asked Maklin. He decided to make the most of this disruptive situation. He rarely had the chance to ask questions on the job. Police work for him involved three cups of coffee at the diner in the morning, pie and a soda at the diner in the afternoon, and a pint and supper at The Pub early in the evening. The special tonight had been fried possum. Deputy’s favorite. That was why Deputy was so sore at Mrs. Drexler. Sheriff Maklin wasn’t too happy about leaving his supper to get cold and his pint to get warm either, but he had a badge pinned to his chest and that meant he had to follow the old scarecrow into the back of beyond to find her half-witted son.
“He come home with slop on his overalls. I know they was frog guts when I smell ‘em. As for the mushrooms, well, he bring home a pocketful one day and says I should throws ‘em into the soup I was makin’. Tells me he’d been eatin’ ‘em in the woods down near the culvert. Said they was right good. I chucked ‘em in. Figured the worse I’d get is a day of readin’ on the crapper.
“Well, let me tells you! I didn’t get no john time. I got me a trip to the moon on a rocket. Yes sir, blast off, shakin’ and lights and noise, and then peace as the engines died and I floated in space, weightless, staring up at the nothingness.”
She shook herself out of her recollection, clutching the tattered hem of her housecoat with one bony hand. “Turns out I was only on me floor, flat out on me back, gawkin’ slack-jawed at the ceiling for half the day. I swear I found the answer to all things in me ceiling tiles, but I don’t remember it now.”
“You rotten old bint!” yelled Deputy. “I aughtta call those people that come and take kids away! You ain’t fit to be a mother!” Deputy’s own mother was an overly protective gentle heart, short on hearing, but tall on love for her only son. He still lived at home despite his decent deputy salary.
“No! No! Don’t call social services—“ pleaded Mrs. Drexler, staring fearfully across Maklin’s broad chest at Deputy.
“Social services?” snapped Deputy. “What the hell is that? I’m talkin’ about Gypsies.”
“Hold on,” interrupted Maklin, raising one of his big hands. He was wearing brown racing gloves. They weren’t standard issue. “If these wild mushrooms were hallucinogenic, it is likely your son is simply confused and lost track of time. I’m sure we’ll find him at the culvert.”
“No, no, Sheriff,” replied Mrs. Drexler, shaking her head again. “I got a bad feelin’. Somethin’ terrible has happened to me boy.”
“What makes you say that?” asked Maklin. That was two questions in one night. He smiled but quickly resumed his serious face. His police face.
“Some nights,” said Mrs. Drexler, “He come home shakin’ in his boots, talkin’ about noises beneath the bridge. Terrible sounds. Gruntin’. Growlin’. Inhuman sounds. I thought nothin’ of it. Thought he was out of his head on account of the ‘shrooms, but when he didn’t come home tonight…” She trailed off.
Maklin had a start when he glanced sideways at her. He thought she was having some sort of fit, but then realized she was crying, sort of. Her thin shoulders shook, she sobbed, and her lips dripped off her face in a pronounced frown. She squinted then blinked quickly, stared then swirled her eyes in their sockets then squinted again, trying to squeeze a few tears out of her rheumy eyes. The spectacle was disconcerting. Deputy was looking at her now, too, his expression equal parts confusion and disgust. Maklin hesitated for a moment but then did what he felt a town Sheriff should do.
“There, there,” he said, patting her gently on the shoulder. “That was just the mushrooms playing tricks on him.”
Mrs. Drexler pulled away from his touch. “No! My boy wouldn’t lie to me, not even if he was corked out of his head. He was tellin’ the truth. There’s something out there!” She was pointing a finger down the road. Her red fingernail polish was badly chipped.
“We’ll find out in a moment, Mrs. Drexler,” said Sheriff Maklin. He pointed a finger of his own, fixing its point on something in the distance that reflected the light of Deputy’s flashlight. It was a reflective patch on a wooden guardrail. “There’s the culvert,” he said, putting some authority in his voice. He felt the situation called for it. Deputy and Mrs. Drexler both cocked an eyebrow. Maklin cleared his throat, straightened the badge on his chest as he was wont to do when feeling too many eyes on him, and said, “Lead the way, please, Deputy” in the same voice he used to order coffee.
The three of them left the road a few feet from the guardrail at a place where the tall brush and thick weeds looked thinnest. The way down was steep, a precarious decent in the dark with the flashlight unable to penetrate the tangle through which they passed. Maklin led the way, being the tallest and broadest. He swatted, pulled and cracked a path as best he could. Mrs. Drexler followed and Deputy brought up the rear. Mrs. Drexler was surprisingly surefooted. Deputy stumbled on more than one occasion, cursing and thrashing back to his feet.
“You sure know how to ruin a night,” he muttered after one such fall. The tall stand of stickers into which he had disappeared shook violently as he clambered to his feet. Maklin and Mrs. Drexler had reached the bottom of the decline and were waiting for Deputy at the edge of a babbling brook.
“All’s quiet,” said Maklin. He looked upstream to where the flowing water came out of a cave of greenery. Beyond that tangle he could make out the topmost portion of the yawning maw that lay beneath the road. The culvert was huge despite the small size of the brook that ran through it.
“They be wily, these creatures. They keep hidden,” said Mrs. Drexler. She was staring down at her slippers, which had been old and tattered, but were now also filthy with muck and bits of flora.
“What are you talking about?” That was Deputy, absent-mindedly stepping into the brook as he picked stickers off his uniform. “Ah hell,” he said, as the water first soaked his shoe and then his sock.
Sheriff Maklin started them moving again. He pushed at the edges of the twisted greenery that blocked the entrance to the culvert, probing for a way through. Seeing no easy way, he used his large hands to pull aside what he could, forcing his body into the inadequate gap.
“My boy never saw ‘em,” continued Mrs. Drexler, “But he knew what they were. He knew what lurked under the bridge.” She wiggled her way after Maklin, branches pulling at her housecoat. There was a ripping as she strained to pull herself free.
Maklin’s vision was filled with sticks and leaves. He pushed and pulled his way, leaning his great weight into the branches, forcing them to swing open like a rusted gate.
“He knew the face of fear,” said Mrs. Drexler from somewhere behind him.
Maklin’s arm disappeared deeper into the tangle and broke clear. He was almost through. There was what appeared to be a faint, shimmering light beyond.
”And it is the hairy face of the—“
The last of the blockage surrendered to Maklin’s weight and he stumbled clear, feet splashing in the brook.
“—Culvert Yeti!” Mrs. Drexler’s last words sounded loudly along the length of the cathedral-sized culvert. Maklin supposed it was a combination of their sudden appearance and her shrieking voice that had startled the culvert’s occupants.
Maklin had never seen a Yeti but Yeti they were. There were two of them, both hairy from head to toe and long-limbed. They were seated at either ends of a small wooden table, their large frames implausibly in wooden chairs far too small to hold their weight. There was a doily on the table, frilly and fancy. An ornate teapot sat on the doily, still steaming. Both Yeti were staring at the three newcomers, their big eyes wide under their shaggy brows. One Yeti had its teacup raised to its lips, frozen in the act sipping. The second Yeti was still as a statue, poised to cut a rectangular dessert with a silver-handled knife. Two brass lanterns hanging from pegs set into the culvert’s curved walls lit the scene.
Sheriff Maklin had no idea what to do next. He opened his mouth but couldn’t think of anything useful to say. Even Mrs. Drexler was quiet. The only thing Deputy could think to do was turn off his flashlight.
“Tea?” asked one of the Yeti in a pleasant voice. It was wearing a black bow tie. The other Yeti looked dapper in a purple tam and silk scarf.
“Stand tall and take the beatin’ ya got comin’!” shouted Deputy. He was red in the face, fists balled up.
The Yeti with the bow tie put down the silver-handled knife. “Beating? Dear sir, I think you are gravely mistaken. We deserve no beating.” It motioned to the teapot. “Please, let us discuss this like gentlemen.”
Deputy sprang forward like a jackrabbit, spitting and snarling. “Shut yer yap! Where is the boy!?”
It seemed to Maklin that the shock of finding Yeti in the backwoods was too much for Deputy to handle. He was pretty sure he wasn’t handling the discovery too well either. He glanced at Mrs. Drexler to see how she was faring. Her eyes were afire and she clutched her robe with a white-knuckled grip. Deputy’s conniptions were fueling her own internal fire.
“Hey!” exclaimed Deputy, pointing to the cake on the table. “What’s this? Kid pie?”
”Fruitcake,” calmly replied the Yeti with the tam.
Deputy was up on the table in a flash, with a fistful of silk scarf and Yeti fur. Mrs. Drexler yelped with excitement, clapping her hands. Maklin took a step forward as Deputy snatched up the silver-handled knife and threatened the Yeti with it.
“That’s fightin’ words!” Deputy bawled, the fury of his words blowing back the hair on the Yeti’s head. “I’ll carve out your eyes and stuff ‘em in your ears!”
Maklin picked up the cake in question and took a bite.
”Hold a sec,” he said, his words intended for Deputy. “This is fruitcake. I think we’ve made a mistake. These here… Yeti…ummm… gentlemen don’t know anything about the boy’s whereabouts.”
Mrs. Drexler shot forward, waving a finger under Sheriff Maklin’s face. “No! They killed my boy!” She was in hysterics, spittle flying from her lips. “I just know it. Bash their heads in! Make them pay! Choke them–”
It happened so fast that Maklin had no chance to react. One moment Mrs. Drexler was up in his face in an unholy rage and the next there was a rush of air, a loud crunch and Mrs. Drexler was gone.
The Yeti with the bow tie had hauled off and socked her one, right square in the mug.
Her curlers exploded outward like shrapnel, pinging off the sides of the culvert like bullets off a doughboy’s helmet. Maklin saw her sailing backward through the air, lifted clean off the ground, flat out on her back. There was a ruckus of snapping branches and rustling leaves as she disappeared into the tangle of shrubbery outside the culvert.
”Christ,” shouted Deputy. “One of her teeth got me in the eye!”
Maklin looked down and saw Mrs. Drexler’s tattered and mucky slippers in the shallow water of the brook. He looked over at Deputy. He was rubbing his eye, but the anger had been knocked out of him as surely as Mrs. Drexler’s few remaining teeth had been knocked out of her head. Maklin looked at the Yeti. The one with the bow tie gave him a crooked smile and shrugged. The one in the silk scarf held up the teapot. “Tea?” it asked.
It was Maklin’s turn to shrug. There was nothing left to do in this unexpected spectacle but roll with it to its conclusion. “Sure,” he replied, “but no fruitcake for Deputy. Sugar makes him hyper.”
As Deputy and Maklin gathered around the table to watch the pouring of the tea, the bow tie Yeti gazed at the hole in the brambles. “I wonder what happened to that poor woman’s boy…”
Maklin sipped the tea, careful not to take too much lest it be very hot. It was hot but not dangerously so. He didn’t know squat about tea but didn’t find it unpleasant. “Probably home right now wonderin’ where his mama is,” he said.
Mrs. Drexler’s boy was, in fact, not far from the culvert.
The flying form of Mrs. Drexler scattered a family of field mice nibbling on frog entrails. Mrs. Drexler skipped once along the brook water then came sliding to a halt, leaving a torn path in the dirt and weeds of the bank. Her prone form lay among the destroyed bodies of a dozen frogs. Ten feet further upstream was her son. He was facedown in the brook, one ridiculously large frog sitting on the back of his head and neck. In the boy’s hands was a bloody rock. Wild mushrooms, a few half-eaten, had spilled out of the boy’s pockets and were now being drawn downstream by the babbling water.
The only other sound in the night was that of a civilized tea party.