THE MONKEY THING
A TRUE STORY
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Here in the hills and forests of the Hudson Valley, strange creatures roam the kingdom of the night. Always hidden from the light, these denizens of darkness are not critters of the common kind. Nor are they members of the menagerie of furry friends who arrive at our house, every night, to scrape the plates and “do the dishes” that my wife, leaves strewn out on the porch, long after the stray cats she feeds, each day, are fed. The beasts that I’m referring to are seldom seen by human eyes, but once seen, they are never forgotten! And the memory of that sighting lives on, to become the stuff of lore and legend.
From my perch high in the Bell Tower of an old schoolhouse that overlooks the Hudson River, I often lie in bed at night and hear the sound of familiar forest visitors, out there on the porch below me, toppling urns and flowerpots, or sending well licked plates and bowls bumping and crashing down the wooden steps.
Forty years of listening has taught me to identify these nocturnal guests by the nature of their characteristic sounds or silence. Raccoons are the most raucous, often digging in the flowerpots and tossing stuff about. Possums are a bit quieter, and skunks make almost no noise at all, apart from the occasional clinking of a bowl. One might never know they’re there, unless they hear the china break, or meet them unexpectedly, in person, as I have done on many an occasion, opening the front door in early evening to encounter one or more of these small feral creatures, feasting on the remains of the day, the kitties’ leftovers. Sometimes, one of our familiar cats will be there too, sitting calmly beside it, watching benevolently as his dinner guest devours the remnants of his supper, secure in the knowledge that the dinner bowl will be filled again, the following day. Seeing them together never fails to amuse me, animals of different species, hanging out in harmony, as if they are the best of friends.
Then again, there have been other occasions, events that I found less amusing, nights when I’ve been awakened in the darkest hours, that time known as ”the dead of night”, by horrible sounds that sent a shiver, up and down my spine. From somewhere far off in the forest, or echoing from the woods behind the house, I’d hear the hideous unearthly screaming of some hapless animal being murdered, or fighting for its life.
Worse still, are the “other” noises that, from time to time, come floating through the bell tower windows. Although, less dramatic than cold blooded murder, these sounds can be more disconcerting. Outside, on the porch below, I’ll hear the evidence of something larger than the animals I know, the tell-tale sounds of heavy breathing, objects breaking, muffled grunting, foot or paw steps thumping, and I realize, or fantasize, that something really big is out there, bumping in the night. It is at times like this that fear engulfs me, and sends my thoughts instantly reeling back in time, to inevitably focus on the events that took place on a certain evening, nearly 30 years ago. The memory of what I saw that night remains forever vivid in my mind
I don’t recall the exact year. But I do know it was the second or third season that the Meadowlands Collectibles Show moved inside to the vast interior of the arena, and was no longer strung out around the perimeter. Judging from that, and the fact that the family car was crumbling, it must have been the early 1980s. Nor can I recall the time of year. Most likely, it was either late autumn or early spring, for there was little foliage on the trees, but underbrush and bushes remained. And it was cold. There was no snow. Nonetheless, it might have even been mid-winter.
Around that time, The Golden Age of Comic Character Collecting was still just beginning, and I was afire with a passion to acquire all the Comic Characters icons I could discover. Thus, in those desire driven days, and for many years thereafter, I was willing to “do anything” to get into an antique show early. In this instance, and many others like it, “doing anything” consisted of helping my antique dealer friend, Pat Vaillancourt, set up at indoor shows. In return for lifting and carrying and watching her booth when she needed a break, I’d get in early. And while she set up, I’d be set free to madly shop the show, posing as a dealer.
On this particular evening, I had gone to bed ridiculously early, and, for once, in spite of my excitement, had managed to get a good night’s sleep. So as I walked out into the chilly air, at 3A.M. that early morning, I was bright eyed, well rested, and sky-high happy, aflame with the assured anticipation that children who have not been naughty experience on Christmas Eve.
Only one obstacle remained between me and predictable Nirvana, my unreliable and prematurely old VW station wagon. Provided it could manage to limp down to Pat’s house, 10 miles south of here in Garrison, without dying, I’d be home free. From there, Pat would do the driving, piloting her van, well packed with merchandise and me, down to the Meadowlands arena in New Jersey, to be among the first dealers in line, before the break of day.
After several false starts and stall-outs, the engine of my miniature red station wagon finally got going. With a sigh of relief, I headed down the hill to where the curving driveway meets the highway, and stopped there for a moment to look both ways, before turning out onto the road; not that anything would be coming at that hour of the morning. The car trembled a little and sputtered, threatening to stall again. So I quickly lifted my foot from the brake pedal, intending to hit the gas, and go; when, all at once, I hesitated, my foot arrested in mid air. Something darker than the night, moving through the tall dry grass beside me, had caught the corner of my eye. I eased my foot down on the brake again, and waited for it to pass by.
It appeared to be a cat, jet black, not one of mine. And there was something not quite right about it. I squinted my eyes, trying to see it more clearly, as it emerged from the weed covered embankment, and began to cross the road.
Suddenly, my blood ran cold!
This was no ordinary cat!
I swear to God, its head was BACKWARDS! Yes, you heard me right! By “backwards” I mean, not merely turned, as far as it could naturally go, but twisted a full 180 degrees! It was as if its head had been removed and reassembled, or rotated past the breaking point, and pointing in the wrong direction. I watched in shock and disbelief as this feline monstrosity, with its tail held high, like a flagpole, and its dislocated head, looking back, both at the tail and past it, as if it was some kind of scope to guide it, traveled on its slow and awkward path towards the road. I guess, in order to see where it was going, the cat was also WALKING BACKWARDS.
Desperate for a logical explanation, I wondered if the sight beside me was possibly the creation of my imagination, or an optical illusion, attributable to the darkness. The answer came immediately, for the animal continued backing out, tail first, onto the highway, to chillingly reveal itself in the full beam of my left headlight. Unfortunately, this poor misshapen creature proved to be exactly what it seemed to be, quite REAL!
With unfaltering determination, it continued to inch its way across Route 9D, apparently impervious to both the sudden light, and me. It moved in a grotesquely erratic fashion, resembling bad stop motion animation, jerking spastically as it slowly propelled itself across the highway, and disappeared into the bushes on the other side. I assumed it kept on going. And, as nothing could dissuade me from attending an antique show, so did I!
Now racing down the deserted highway, my mind was racing too. I noticed that my hands were shaking. Could I have been Hallucinating? I reasoned out the possibilities, and quickly came to the conclusion that this apparition was so subtle and “original”, unlike anything I had encountered in fiction or the movies, a black cat with its head on backwards, compensating for that situation by walking backwards; nothing like it had ever crossed my mind, or path, before. That settled it; I concluded that my eyes were not deceiving me. The concept, itself, was just too weird and unexpected not to be true, for as the saying goes: You can’t make this stuff up!
And, Yes! This horrible black cat, indeed, had “crossed my path”. I wondered half in jest, half seriously; will this bring me Bad Luck? I was about to see.
The road that I was traveling, 9D, runs along the Hudson River from Beacon, through Cold Spring and Garrison, then past the Bear Mountain Bridge to Peekskill. Along the roadside, there are markers proclaiming that this route is also known as “Arnold’s flight”, for it is the very path that Benedict Arnold followed, in fleeing from his act of treason.
Traveling south, in daylight, the river remains intermittently in sight, down the hillside on the right. On the left side of the road, rolling hills and mountains rise. These hills are very high in places, and are still covered in great expanses of lush forest, much of which has remained untouched, perhaps, since primordial times. But, this being the middle of the night, I could see nothing but darkness on either side; nor did I encounter a single other vehicle on my solitary journey. I was the only traveler on the road that night.
Throughout the Hudson Valley, a complex network of stone fences that were supposedly placed there by the first Dutch settlers, weaves its crazy way through the forests and across the hills and mountains; sometimes forming illogical patterns, or clinging to steep inclines, and cropping up in unexpected places that, at first glance, would appear to be inaccessible to human kind. They convey a sense of both mystery and history, hinting at things unknown that happened long ago, in pre-Colonial times.
The walls, themselves, are no more than artfully stacked stones, held together, without mortar, by gravity alone. Many still remain pristine, today. Just such a wall serves as the property line behind my home, where more tree covered hills begin, and continue to rise, hill after hill, to become mountains, stretching out for miles and miles, undisturbed and unexplored, except for the city reservoir that’s up there somewhere. The decomposing body of a woman was found floating in that reservoir, the year that we moved up here; a fact that, for a while, occurred to me, every time I drank a glass of water. This land is all a State Park, now, so nothing can be altered. And it remains a safe domain for wildlife of every kind, including Creatures of the Night.
The hills of Garrison, on the other hand, have become well populated, more so than 30 years ago. Although, not readily apparent, the forests and the mountains there are dotted with amazing homes; some perched on hilltops out of sight, others hidden deep in forests. Each one is luxurious, and all the views are glorious. But I would never choose to live in one of those, not after seeing the next sight that was waiting for me on the road ahead that night.
Along 9D in Garrison, there is a place called St. Basil’s Academy. It was originally the estate of Jacob Ruppert, onetime owner of the New York Yankees. Situated on a cliff above the Hudson, he called it, “Eagles Rest”. It was sold after his death, and in 1944 became a Greek Orthodox school. The grandeur of St Basils is not visible from the highway, but in passing, one can marvel is its impressive iron gates suspended from stone columns. Just inside the gates, there stands a huge bronze eagle, “resting”, I guess, atop a massive orb that might, or might not, represent a baseball. The mansion itself is hidden from view by 400 acres of woods, surrounded by a wrought iron fence.
As I approached St. Basil’s, I was still in a state of agitation, disquieted by the dream-like solitude of the lonely drive, and shaken by my encounter with the recapitated cat. Here, Route 9D turns sharply to the right: then immediately turns left again. As my vehicle rounded the first curve, I noticed, from afar, two fiery Red Eyes, glowing in the shadows up ahead, like ruby laser beams, picking up the lights of my approaching car, and reflecting them back at me, blood red.
Then, as the turn continued, the road beyond veered to the left, allowing my headlights to sweep across the entire length of the curved embankment on the right, bathing it in light, to reveal, with shocking clarity, the owner of the eyes, a beast that I would later name “The Monkey Thing”! It was, just standing there, leaning against the metal guard rail, Stark Naked in the cold night air. And thus, due to a twist of Fate and a turning in the road, this elusive creature of the night was fully illuminated, head-on, by my ”brights”, and totally exposed!
At first, I thought it was a naked child, approximately 8 to 10 years old. Until I realized that its body, which appeared to be pale pinkish white, was completely covered in fine reddish brown hair, not thick and bushy, like a bear, but hanging down in long straight lines, thin and wispy, almost transparent, revealing every contour of the anatomy below. I could clearly see the indication of its ribs, and a series of protruding bumps or vertebrae, evenly spaced in a vertical line, running down its spine, terminating in a small scrawny behind. I don’t recall a tail. I also assumed that it was male, although, my viewing angle offered no proof of that assumption. Its disturbing face and body hair made me instantly think, “animal”, even though, its posture and manner of moving were quite hauntingly human.
I had apparently interrupted it, midway, in the act of stepping, one leg at a time, over the long gray guard rail that ran along the border of the road. It grinned in my direction, never flinching, or turning from the light. Its face, which I saw all too clearly, defied description. It was neither apelike nor human. The word that comes to mind is “Diabolical”, like its grin. Its ghastly mouth was enormously wide with teeth “from ear to ear”. Well, actually, that’s just an expression; I recall no ears at all.
There was an air of brazen casualness about the creature, displaying no evidence of fright or surprise. Although, its hideous head fixed its gaze on me, and never stopped staring, the rest of it just went about its business, and continued stepping over the barrier. Resting its hands on the top edge of the railing, it lifted one leg over, and then the other. Once on the other side, It turned with its butt still resting on the rail, and in no great hurry, stood up to start descending down the hill, into the woods below.
At that moment, my precarious old vehicle passed by, no farther than ten gut-wrenching feet away. I felt that, any second, the motor was going to die, and so was I! Once clear, I quickly looked into the rear view mirror, only to realize, with a twinge of surprise, that the road behind me was cloaked in darkness, once again.
I believe the impact of what I saw, so brightly lit, had made me momentarily forget it was the middle of the night. And although, it seemed like an eternity, the whole event must have lasted only a few seconds. In retrospect, I wish that I had driven slower to get a better look. But, I was far too shocked and frightened to slow down, at the time. On the other hand, that sharp turn had forced me to ride the brake, so I did see it for a few seconds longer than I might have, otherwise.
As I drove on in a cold sweat, I realized, to my amazement, that I was trembling from head to toe. My mid-night ride had turned into a Nightmare. And, the worst was yet to come, for I still had five more miles to go. Objective observation time was over. Panic Time was setting in!
To my dismay, not far ahead, I was required to turn off of Route 9D onto “Snake Hill Road”, a narrow trail that few cars travel on, even by day. It winds and twists through a deep forest, where one has no choice, but to drive slow. Meanwhile, my Imagination was running at full speed! I visualized my vehicle stalling and coming to a halt. That was not difficult to do, for the car, itself, lurched slightly, as if to remind me of that possibility.
At the same time, in the deep recesses of my mind, I was recalling a story by H. P. Lovecraft, titled “The Lurking Fear”. Ironically, it was his only tale set in the Hudson Valley. It told of a vast network of raised mounds that, like the stone walls of the early settlers, wove their way throughout the very hills and mountains that I was traveling through, now. Beneath these mysterious mounds, there hid a labyrinth of tunnels, from which, on dark and stormy nights, great crowds of hairy creatures, much like the one that I’d just met, spewed forth by the thousands to devour any hapless human they encountered. Remembering that story, on Snake Hill Road, in the middle of the most frightening night of my life, wasn’t helping matters any.
There are times when an active imagination is not a blessing, and at the moment, mine was running WILD! A multitude of thoughts and images were racing through my mind. First and foremost, was the fervent prayer: “Car Don’t Fail Me Now!” followed by the chilling speculation of what would happen if it did?
By the time I got to Pat’s place, I had visualized every horrendous possibility. And the single Monkey Thing I’d seen along the highway had hitched a ride inside my mind, and followed me to Snake Hill Road. There, my imagination permitted it to multiply, and become a vast ravenous hoard of hungry hairy monsters, the creatures of The Lurking Fear, converging on and covering my car, like a swarm of Carnivorous Apes at a Safari Park ... from Hell.
Pat was in her driveway stuffing a few last minute things into her van. She took one look at me and cried: “What the Hell happened to you?” Indeed, I must have been a sight! I was shaking violently, barely able to catch my breath. My heart was pounding audibly, and beneath my heavy leather jacket, I was soaking wet with perspiration. As I incoherently tried to describe what I had seen to Pat, I felt compelled to add, “If you think that I am kidding, feel how fast my heart is beating”. She did, and was convinced I had seen something; God knows what!
When one encounters a phenomenon that redefines reality, be it delicately subtle or glaringly extreme, one knows it instantly! The impact of it hits you, as the expression goes, like a ton of bricks! And no amount of speculation, later, from those who didn’t see it, will suffice to debunk it, or explain it away. Seeing, and I mean “really” seeing, all too clearly, in the full beam of your headlights on a deserted country road in the middle of the night, is believing! Believe me!
In the 30 years that followed, this event became a family legend, an oft told tale that I have never made an effort to write down, until now. Eventually, I came to refer to the creature as, “The Monkey Thing”, for lack of a better name. I also like the more amusing moniker, somewhat sarcastically suggested by our good friend David Cullen, who christened the creature, “Nelson Yeti”, a classic quip in its own right. Of course, he, and more than a few others were skeptical. But my daughter, Alexandra, who was 12 at the time, instantly became a true believer. She eagerly embraced the story, exclaiming as she had done many times before, “My Father never exaggerates or lies”. And she, like me, is convinced that what I saw that night was real, and most likely, along with others like it, is out there in the Mid-Night Forest, still.
Even to this very day, the sound of something screaming in the woods at night, or bumping on the porch below, immediately rekindles the memory of that other night, so many years ago. And lying there in the darkness, feeling vulnerable, I, once more, let my imagination run away with me, visualizing a frightening fantasy, in which the thing I hear and fear outside swings easily from the porch to the adjacent tree, then quickly scrambles up the bell tower wall to appear in the open window at my feet, separated from me only by a flimsy fabric screen. For a moment, it hesitates, perched precariously on the windowsill, as it prepares to leap. I see its fiery eyes and terrible teeth, grinning at me, from, nonexistent, ear to ear. The Monkey Thing is HERE!