The Damn Thing
BY ROBERT LONG FOREMAN
I was in Wendell’s nursery, with Wendell in my lap, the first time I saw the Damn Thing.
It was in a book, Wild, Wonderful Wildlife of West Virginia. I thought I’d never seen such a bad animal. It was hideous.
I put the book aside and rocked Wendell. He dozed after a long time. I put him in his crib and went to the living room with the book in my hand.
Wendell started crying as soon as I was gone. Steve went in. It was his turn to calm our boy down.
This would go on for the rest of the night, our trading off like that. We’d been doing it for three months, ever since Wendell was born.
I sat on the couch with the book and looked again at the Damn Thing. The light in the nursery was dim, and I hadn’t slept in weeks. So maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked when I first saw it.
It was worse. It was horrible. It looked unreal, like the brainchild of a mad photographer who’d fused together parts of creatures that didn’t fit right. There’s no way, I thought, this thing is real.
It is real. I looked it up on my phone and found it there, too.
It has its own Wikipedia page. It is an abominable page, with more photos and a list of its distinguishing features.
It has pincers on its mouth, like a dung beetle, but it’s no insect. It has fur and nurses its young, like I do. Its ears are like pink seashells, and its eyes look almost human, except they’re on either side of its wretched head. This eye placement, which only makes it uglier, helps it watch for predators.
Inside its mouth, between the pincers, is a prehensile snout, like an anteater has. It emerges from its face when the pincers open, and feels for things to eat, like insects, fruits, and vegetables.
It has a keen sense of smell, and can hear and see well, too. And like racoons and skunks, the Damn Thing has no doubt come snurfling up to the door that leads outside from the kitchen, looking for food when we’re asleep or looking for us.
It is native to where we live, now, in West Virginia. We moved here a month before Wendell was born. The medical supply company Steve works for offered to double his salary if he moved here, to lead the office they wanted to open. We thought we were tired of the city anyway, so we left New York in favor of this small place where nothing costs much and the air is clean.
We thought we’d take vacations. Lots of them. Every other weekend, we’d travel somewhere. It would be like we didn’t have a permanent home at all.
We ignored, when we told each other this, the fetus I carried that would soon be a person who’d prevent us from taking vacations.
Now we spend all our lives in this place where there are hills and poisoned waterways and not a whole lot else. There’s a restaurant that serves chicken. There’s a place to get your oil changed.
I never thought I’d live in West Virginia. I never thought I’d say “West Virginia” out loud.
But it doesn’t matter. If we’d stayed in New York, my life would be no different. Clara would have come to see the baby. I’d have seen Viv somewhere. But I’d be trapped all the same in Wendell’s world, which is the size of the five rooms of this house we’re renting.
When Steve returned from calming Wendell, I showed him the creature I’d found in the book.
He was as surprised to see it as I was. He said, “I’ve never heard of that damn thing.”
“That damn thing,” I said, sneering at the photo. “The damned thing.”
“It’s a short story. Ambrose Bierce wrote it. ‘The Damned Thing.’ That’s what this is.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Ambrose Bierce’s Damned Thing isn’t quite like our Damn Thing. His isn’t real. It’s the subject of a short story from the nineteenth century—“The Damned Thing,” like I told Steve—and it’s something like the alien from the movie Predator. You can’t see it, you can only see its absence, a distortion in the foliage. It sneaks up and kills a man, in the story.
The Damn Thing I found in Wendell’s book is no short story creature. It’s really out there.
It can live to be forty years old. It weighs an average of sixty pounds.
Fully grown, it’s the size of a sizable dog—not Marmaduke large, but bigger than Lassie. It has four legs, and paws that look like furry hands, with toes like fingers and toenails like human fingernails.
Its vertebrae stick up under the skin of its back. You can see them glump back and forth as it walks, because its shoulder blades are detached from its spine, like a cheetah, though it is not a quick creature. It’s quite slow.
It moves like an animatronic bowl of Jell-O. It’s as if The Damn Thing learned to move on land the way it would underwater, its flaps and tissues rippling against the humid air the way they would undulate in the water if it lived in the sea.
I watched its shoulder blades move on YouTube, where it was captured in a clip filmed on somebody’s phone. I found its movements almost hypnotic—which could be the point. I wouldn’t put it past the Damn Thing to have mastered the art of mesmerizing tired, new mothers of difficult boys.
Commentary on the YouTube clip was provided by the woman who filmed it. She had seen the creature in her yard and whipped out her phone. In the film, she gasped and cried out, in that lopsided Appalachian fashion, “What is it? What is it doing?”
The Damn Thing ignored her cries and went whuffling through her camping supplies with its long, prehensile snout. It found a baby carrier. It put its front feet on the carrier’s lip and stuck its head inside.
There was no baby in it, but the woman began screaming. She ran after the thing and the film stopped.
The YouTube clip had only a few hundred views, and as it turns out the woman had nothing to fear. In the many hours of research I’ve done on the Damn Thing, in the middle of the night, while I nursed Wendell or rocked him to semi-sleep, I have learned that the Damn Thing loves babies.
It doesn’t love them for food. It just likes them—like I do, or like I did before one prevented me from sleeping so long I thought my eyes would bleed. The Damn Thing likes to cuddle babies and sniff their faces.
I have read that contact with the Damn Thing is good for infants—the way Baby Einstein videos were supposed to be good for them in the early 2000s. Only, Baby Einstein videos were trash.
Studies have shown that babies who come into contact with the Damn Thing, even for less than a minute at a time, perform better on memory tests than other babies.
And that’s not all. Contact with the Damn Thing can help a baby sleep. They say it can help make a colicky baby a regular baby.
I was skeptical about this, at first. But the more I read, the more articles I found that confirmed it. I had to look for the articles, but they’re out there, in regional publications.
You need only let the Damn Thing snuffle its long nose near the baby’s mouth.
It doesn’t have to be for long. Just a few seconds are enough. And there are no documented cases of one hurting a human being.
When I learned this, I felt a surge of something. I think it was hope.
“The Damned Thing” is a certain kind of short story, with a structure that’s common to many short stories. And novels and movies.
A character learns of the existence of a mysterious and possibly dangerous thing. That character seeks the thing out, and as he does suspense builds, until he comes face-to-face with the source of all that mystery. When the climax arrives, he is either transformed by the thing or it destroys him.
“Like in Blade Runner,” Steve said, interrupting me when I told him this.
I started to shake my head. But he wasn’t wrong. “You’re not wrong,” I said. “I think you’re right, actually. But I was thinking of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Where the horror, or the uncanny, is a creature from the wild.”
“Or from space.”
“Or from space. That’s right, Steve.”
“What about Raiders of the Lost Ark? Does that count?”
“I guess it does.”
“It’s like a Cthulhu thing.”
“Huh,” I said. “I guess ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ is another example.”
“No,” Steve said. “I mean this animal. It’s like a Cthulhu creature. It’s so ugly.”
I blinked long and hard. I hadn’t slept in thirty hours.
Wendell wasn’t completely to blame. He was keeping me up, but I’ve always had insomnia. I thought it would go away when he moved in with us. Ha.
“Sometimes I think I’m a Cthulhu creature,” I said.
Steve turned around and looked at me. I was scooping peanut butter straight from the jar, stuffing it in my mouth with banana chips.
“Why don’t you go to bed?” he said.
I said, “I was just in bed.”
The next morning, Steve asked if the Damn Thing was on the endangered species list.
“You’re still thinking about it, too,” I said. I was eating toast.
“Not a lot,” he said over his bowl of Life cereal. “A second ago I was. Do you think about it?”
Wendell was in the nursery. He’d been asleep for seven minutes. We spoke softly.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s not on the endangered list. I looked it up.”
“Seriously? How is every animal on Earth dying out except that one?”
“It’s resilient. It doesn’t need a lot of water. It’s basically made for weathering droughts.”
“It’s like plants, then.”
“I don’t know. All plants. Right? They adjust to how much water you give them so they’ll survive.”
“No, Steve. That’s not right. Plants die if you give them too much water. Every plant’s different.”
I don’t know how Steve didn’t know that.
But the Damn Thing can thrive in the rainforest or the desert. It could survive virtually anywhere, if it weren’t stuck in West Virginia.
“Why have I never seen one?” Steve said.
“Because of their camouflage. They’re like chameleons, only better. And there aren’t many of them. Each female can have just one litter in her lifetime. Every litter has only one or two griblets in it. That’s what their babies are called.”
“When,” said Steve, “did you learn all this?”
“Last night,” I said. “When I was awake. With our son.”
The Damned Thing of “The Damned Thing” is a carnivore. It’s got claws and teeth.
It isn’t exactly camouflaged. It doesn’t blend in. What makes it impossible to see is that its color is not on the spectrum of human eyesight. That’s what gives it its power, and makes it so lethal.
It plays the role in the Bierce story that the Damn Thing plays in the drama that’s been playing out when I’m not rocking Wendell in his room or walking the floor with his tantrum in my arms. The Damn Thing is the object of my misgivings and morbid curiosity. It’s what inspires all my current fear and loathing.
But our Damn Thing is no carnivore. It’s not dangerous. It’s nice.
It’s been around for a long time, people assume, but it wasn’t discovered until the late 1990s. Studies of it are, like Wendell, still in their infancy.
Biologists at a lab upstate, in Morgantown, learned that it likes to feed on the particles a baby exhales, the microscopic bits of baby that emerge from its lungs when it breathes. Like a whale that presses forward through the sea, pulling krill into her face, the Damn Thing gathers nutrients from the exhalations of the young of other species.
It’s not a popular thing to do, to let the Damn Thing breathe baby lung air. But enough people must have done it that a study could be done of what the effects are. Someone had to sign those permission slips.
No one knows what it is the Damn Thing gets out of this that it wouldn’t get out of eating regular food. Maybe it’s the same thing I would have gotten out of holding Wendell in my arms and breathing his air if he hadn’t been the reason I was losing my mind.
But the Damn Thing reciprocates. Everything I’ve read indicates that the Damn Thing is beneficial to people. From its pores ooze musks and balms that have natural healing properties.
I showed Steve an article about this on my tablet. It was from The Appalachian Science Quarterly.
“They promote well-being?” he said. “Those things?”
“They’ve been known to cut despair in half in dementia patients,” I said. “For everyone else, they help resolve longstanding crises.”
“Only the longstanding ones?”
“That’s what it says in the article.”
“How do they do that?”
He looked skeptical.
“They’ve done studies,” I assured him. “It says it right here.”
“How,” he asked, “does an animal know which crises are longstanding?”
“They don’t, babe. They’re not therapists. It’s a chemical reaction. They can’t help it.”
The Damn Thing hasn’t been exploited or commodified, because the creature is not commercial. If one is kept in captivity, it dies within a day. Its body has to be buried, or else it brings bad luck to those who locked it up.
This was proven, more or less. Not long after the researchers in Morgantown caught a Damn Thing, they stood by and watched it expire in its cage for no reason they could see. They didn’t bury it. They dissected it, and at great cost.
A week later, the team leader perished in a head-on collision with a milk truck. Another team member was abandoned by her husband and was left to raise their three kids by herself on a researcher’s salary. The third researcher was kidnapped while doing other research in Australia. The ransom wasn’t paid. He was never seen again.
It wasn’t scientifically confirmed that the Damn Thing had brought the team their bad luck. But the evidence for it struck me as overabundant.
The Damn Thing had a public moment in the late nineties, a brief interruption of the media blackout it’s otherwise enjoyed. There were stories about it on Sixty Minutes and Nightline. When I watched them on YouTube, I learned nothing I didn’t know already.
Half a decade later, someone wrote a personal essay about the Damn Thing. But I found, when I read it, that it wasn’t about the Damn Thing so much as it was about the author’s divorce and its aftermath. Personal insights crowded out the monster that intrigued me. It was incidental to the essay, at best. She might as well have written about a goldfish.
Something she mentioned, though, and which other sources corroborated, was that there were no confirmed sightings of the Damn Thing until the Internet came about. The earliest sightings coincided with the rise of computer networks like Prodigy and CompuServe.
I read, elsewhere, at three o’clock one morning, with Wendell screaming in my arms, that the Damn Thing is attracted to Wi-Fi signals. Nearly every recent domestic sighting of one has been in the presence of Wi-Fi.
It was one more thing I didn’t understand. Most animals don’t even know about Wi-Fi.
Someone in Wisconsin wrote on her tumblr page that the Damn Thing was attracted to the phrase “pendulous breasts.”
She observed that when she uttered those words in her backyard she spotted a Damn Thing immediately after. She said on her blog that she tried it three more times, and the Damn Thing reappeared every time.
The comments section was a mess. Everyone seemed to assume she meant it was her pendulous breasts that had attracted the Damn Thing.
That wasn’t what she’d meant at all. Her breasts probably weren’t even pendulous. If they were, why would she talk about them in her yard?
Still, one commenter wrote, “Correlation does not imply causation.” He added, “Now let me see those pendy titties.”
The morning after I saw that, when Steve went to work, I took Wendell outside to see our garden. It was a cold day. A Tuesday.
I didn’t think the Damn Thing would appear. I read online that they’re far more likely to turn up on Thursdays than Tuesdays. So the visitation wasn’t guaranteed or even likely to happen.
It didn’t matter. I wanted to be outside. I didn’t care that it was cold. I thought the open air might cure my cabin fever. At least when I was outside I wasn’t inside.
I wrapped Wendell in a warm blanket and brought him along in his carrier. I dug holes in the garden.
I had nothing to plant in the holes, and it would have been the wrong season for that. Surely in the spring I’d neglect planting anything, in favor of cultivating Wendell. I dug holes to take my mind off the condition of my mind.
Half an hour went by. The Appalachians loomed on all sides.
The Damn Thing was there. I don’t know how I knew. We so rely upon the orderly operation of familiar natural laws that any seeming suspension of them is noted as a menace to our safety, a warning of unthinkable calamity.
That must have been it: a familiar natural law had been suspended. I felt a presence there, on a register where I never feel anything. I could smell the Damn Thing, or sense it in some unconscious fashion. Maybe it told me it was there with its bestial mind.
I was at my wit’s end. I was willing to try anything to get Wendell to sleep.
I hadn’t thought the Damn Thing would show up, but I had done what I could to attract it. I had turned up the Wi-Fi full blast. I had uttered the words “pendulous breasts” many times, first quietly, then quite loudly.
My breasts aren’t pendulous. They’re not even close. If anyone overheard, and asked what I was saying, I knew I’d have to lie and say I’d been talking to myself about a credulous mess.
Over near Wendell, I saw a tree branch shiver. I squinted, and tilted my head.
Something was there. It had blended with its surroundings so well it was nearly transparent.
The foliage moved. It seemed as if stirred by a streak of wind, which not only bent it, but pressed it down—crushed it so that it did not rise, and this movement was slowly prolonging itself directly toward us.
I went closer. I got a better look.
The Damn Thing wasn’t ugly. It was sublime. I can’t explain how it could inspire disgust in a photograph, and in the flesh leave me breathless with an impression quite the opposite. It had all the weird features it had in photos.
I stood slowly. I didn’t want to scare it off.
Birds chirped in the trees. The world kept turning.
When the Damn Thing saw Wendell, lying back in his carrier, the boy was just waking from his nap. The Thing moved to him in one fluid motion. It traveled across the lawn so uniquely I could hardly see it.
Its pincers opened. Out came its snout.
It sniffed Wendell’s hair. It wasn’t camouflaged anymore; I could see it clearly. Wendell laughed when it nearly touched his nose. It drew back a moment before it reached for his mouth.
I grabbed the shovel I’d brought with me. But the Damn Thing didn’t hurt Wendell. It only stood there, sniffing his smiling face.
Wendell laughed. He kept on laughing. The Damn Thing kept sniffing.
This went on for half a minute. It seemed like long enough.
“Okay,” I said softly.
The Damn Thing didn’t react.
“I said okay,” I said.
It didn’t move.
I said, “Enough.”
I stepped forward. The Damned Thing turned its head to look at me. It focused its eyes.
“I’m his mother,” I said.
And when I said that I wondered, What the hell am I doing out here? What is going on?
What would Steve think if he saw me out there? What would I think if I hadn’t been brought to such a desperate place by Wendell’s stubborn infancy?
I recovered myself. With my gardening boot I kicked the Damned Thing off of Wendell, onto its back. It made a sound like a sneeze as it disengaged from him. It hadn’t been attached, but it had been enthralled, somehow, and the sound was alarming, the way it always is when a nonhuman creature makes a human sound.
The Damn Thing looked up at me, with those eyes that were like a girl’s eyes. As hard as its back plates were, it had a soft, tender belly, like Wendell’s fontanelle. I wouldn’t even have to press hard with the shovel.
But I didn’t kill it. I flipped it again with the shovel’s blade.
It glanced at me, then turned its back on me and Wendell. It took its time walking back into the forest. It looked satisfied.
Is this the effect of the pheromones? I wondered as I watched it move away. Is that why I didn’t kill it? Is it why it doesn’t look ugly to me, now? Did it stay alive by convincing me of its beauty?
I don’t know. I picked up Wendell’s carrier and took him inside.
He hadn’t cried. The Damned Thing hadn’t made him cry.
Nearly everything made him cry.
I sat on the couch with him and watched as he still didn’t cry.
“The Damned Thing” features a kind of guarantee that the tale Ambrose Bierce tells is a true one. A coroner gives the story’s narrator a hard time, because his account of his friend’s death is bonkers. His friend was mauled by an invisible beast? One that no one’s ever heard of? Come on.
The narrator says that’s why he has to publish his written account of it as fiction. That way, people won’t get hung up on such things.
This gives the story a sheen of verisimilitude. The threat of its possible truth reverberates through it and gives it power.
I find myself in a similar circumstance. If I told someone—anyone—that a rare mammal had pressed its nose against my son and made him a better child, I would have a hard time publishing that as truth. People wouldn’t believe me. They would question my fitness as a mother to boot.
I don’t know in what context I could write about the Damn Thing and expect anyone to believe what I was saying. I can’t review the beast on Amazon.
But if I call this account a work of fiction, then, ah-ha, the equation changes. I have a better chance of getting this testimonial to those who need to hear it—other mothers and fathers whose sons and daughters have stripped them of everything, by crying all the time and never sleeping.
The fathers and mothers have to try to salvage what they have left. They will try anything. Maybe what I have to say can help them.
Because Wendell is a little different, since the Damn Thing paid him a visit. It didn’t have quite the desired effect. It didn’t relieve him of his colic in a minute. Maybe I was supposed to let it do its thing longer.
But he has been getting better. I’ve been paying close attention.
I watched him as he napped for the rest of that first afternoon. When I fed him again, he gulped as always, holding on like it was the last meal he’d ever eat, like my breast could slip away forever if he didn’t clutch it hard. And then he fell right to sleep, as soon as he was done. He almost never did that before.
Wendell has started laughing—laughing for real, from his belly to his lips. He does it often. He didn’t do that much before his encounter with the Damned Thing.
He laughs at faces. He laughs at me.
He laughs at the sight of the Damn Thing in the book where we first found it. He never used to laugh at that image. I don’t know what it means that he does it now.
I’ve even started laughing with Wendell, sometimes. I can’t help myself. The sight of the Damn Thing inspires something other than what it once did.
I haven’t told Steve about the garden, and I won’t. There’s no need to alarm him. He would tell his mother about it.
No. Our encounter with the Damn Thing is something for Wendell and me to share. It is mine and his first secret—the first of many. There is so much wreckage—of the life I had before he came, and the body and mind I had before he tore them apart.
Maybe the Damn Thing is the first stone in a new foundation, a sliver of what will be a monument to what we’ve put each other through.
Maybe this is what I need to tell myself so I don’t really lose my mind.
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