Lunacy: My Attempt at Fiction

September 6th, 2007

In medieval times, it was believed that sleeping in the moonlight made you crazy; that’s why we call it lunacy. The moonlight didn’t make me crazy -- well, I suppose some people say that it did -- but it certainly ruined my life.

I wanted to get some good photographs of the upcoming lunar eclipse. The moon was scheduled to be deep in eclipse at moonrise at my location. Of course, moonrise would take place at sunset, which meant that the sky would still be bright blue, not pitch black. But it so happens that I live on a ridge in the Coast Range of Central California, and to my east is a much higher ridge about three miles away. The moon would therefore rise (for me) more than an hour after sunset, when the sky would be pretty dark, and the moon would be blood red against a dark background. I figured that this moonrise, framed against the oak trees along the skyline of the distant ridge, would make a spectacular photograph. So I set up my little telescope and prepared for the big moment.

It was impossible to know exactly where on the skyline the moon would appear, so I scanned back and forth along the ridge top with my binoculars, looking for the glare that would indicate the moon. As the minutes passed, I saw no inkling of any such glare, and began to worry out loud that perhaps the moon had fallen out of the sky. But 55 minutes after sunset I saw an unmistakable bright strip of light, and I knew that the moment was fast approaching. I zoomed in on the area with my telescope and got the camera ready. Unfortunately for me, the moon slides southward as it rises, so the current bright spot was not an indicator of where moonrise would actually appear -- that would be a bit to the right of the bright zone.

As I watched, the first sparkle of moon popped up, bright and red. As I watched, it slowly rose and slid to the right, becoming brighter every second. I alternated between gazing at the gorgeous sight and using the camera to take quick shots. The ideal moment would be just as the moon was half-risen; I estimated that a big oak tree would be just on its left side as it did so. I watched and waited for the perfect moment, keyed up and ready to act.

And then something happened that changed my life. A tall figure strode across the face of the moon, from the right towards the oak tree at left. It was human in shape, but the arms were inhumanly long, and the head abnormally small. But what was most striking only became apparent as it neared the oak tree. That figure had to be at least 9 feet tall. I knew it was that tall because the deer nibble off all the leaves on oak trees down to about four feet. That’s the highest reach of the tallest deer, and every oak tree in these hills has an upside-down crew cut at that level.

This creature was more than twice as high as the four-foot gap at the bottom of the oak tree.

It was all over in three seconds. I stared, absolutely stunned, hoping it would return. Nothing happened. I stared longer. Still nothing. Then suddenly I realized that a photograph would be more useful, so I raised my camera and began snapping shots as quickly as I could. It’s a film camera (consumer digital cameras can’t be do arbitrarily long exposures.), so I quickly ran out of film. I stared again at the ridge line, but soon the moon had lifted completely away from the ridge and there was nothing more to see.

I just sat down in wonderment. What had I seen? It was a living being, of that there could be no doubt. It was humanoid in shape, that too was a certainty. But it was just as certainly NOT human; as I turned the image over and over in my head, the long, long arms and the tiny head made that clear. There was no mistake in my sight here. There was also something unusual about its gait -- it didn’t walk like a human but I couldn’t put my finger on the difference.

I was too excited to go to sleep. I sat up for hours, going over and over those three seconds, trying to make sense out of them. I ran through hypotheses, but none of them made sense. A backpacker, perhaps? Not likely -- not with that long, tall body. A person on stilts? No, you can’t use stilts on the rocky, broken ground in these hills; you’d fall too easily. Besides, why would somebody on stilts be walking around in the middle of nowhere at night?

Perhaps it was an escaped gorilla or orangutan. Yeah, right -- except that other primates knuckle-walk. They don’t stand up tall and walk like humans do.

I went through all manner of crazy ideas before I finally fell asleep. But I was up at the crack of dawn to re-examine the location in my telescope in daylight. It was a completely nondescript ridgetop. Oak trees, dried out grasses, scrub brush, poison oak, and the occasional rock outcrop. That’s all there was. Nothing special. I scanned the entire ridge, looking for anything that might explain the mystery: a jeep trail, a building, anything. But there was nothing whatsoever.

Next I went to Google Earth to look at aerial photos of the ridge top. This proved to be especially perplexing. There was absolutely nothing of any significance for miles in any direction. No roads, no ranches, no jeep trails, no fences, NOTHING. Just empty land.

So then I went to the county website to look at the plat maps for the area, and I got my first interesting fragment of information: that entire ridge, and all of the land for miles around, had been a military bombing range in World War II. Now it belonged to the water district; it was the catchment area for the big reservoir that provided water for 50,000 people. There was just one dirt road that led to the property.

I piled into my car and drove through the hills to the side road, followed it until it petered down to a dirt road, and followed it for a few more miles until I came to a sturdy gate chained shut. There were two small signs at the gate:

Property of Los Prietos Water District. No trespassing. No hunting. No hiking. No camping. Violators will be prosecuted.

Danger! Unexploded military munitions! Keep out!

This second sign had an ominous skull for emphasis.

But what really hammered home the point was the fence extending from both sides of the gate. This was no rickety country fence. This was solid, heavy-duty field fence, topped with a strand of barbed wire set with double-weight T-bars. Nobody uses double-weight T-bars! They’re way too expensive and they take special equipment to drive into the ground. I walked along the fence line for a hundred yards to verify that in fact the heavy-duty fencing wasn’t just for show. Sure enough, the fence was solid all the way I checked. And they had double-stands every hundred feet to boot! These people were not kidding -- they didn’t want anybody going into that land.

Stymied, I drove home and allowed my thoughts to be overtaken by the priorities of daily life. But I couldn’t get that image out of my mind. What was up there?

That night, I decided that I would try again. So I parked myself at the eyepiece of my telescope and waited for moonrise, which was an hour later than the night before. But there was nothing this time. I continued every night for the next five nights, by which time the moon was getting too small to show much. And I saw nothing.

The next three weeks passed slowly. I began to think that I must have been mistaken, that I could not have seen what I thought I saw. The photographs I had taken showed nothing other than a moonrise with a tree. There was simply no corroboration for my story. I started to accept the likelihood that I had seen a mirage, or imagined the whole thing. But I hadn’t completely given up. I resolved to watch the moonrise every time I could. And so I did for the next six months. Much of the time I was clouded out; yet I watched for many more moons and saw nothing.

And then, on the seventh month, I saw it again! I was watching a gibbous moon rise at 10:00 PM when I saw the same creature moving across the lunar background. This time it wasn’t crossing my line of sight; I first saw its head on the left, just above the skyline, and it rose and moved toward the right as it walked. Obviously, it was climbing over the ridgeline, moving toward me. But then, just after it crossed the top, it stopped dead in its tracks. Now, it was only a silhouette, but I clearly perceived that it turned slightly towards its right, so that it was facing directly towards me. It raised its right hand to its head; I couldn’t see what the left arm was doing. And then suddenly it turned around, ducked low, and ran back in the direction from which it came.

Now I was really confused. It had acted for all the world as if it had seen me, but that was clearly impossible. I was three miles away, standing in the dark with my telescope. Not even an eagle or a vulture could have detected me. Even with my powerful telescope, that huge creature was a small figure not easily resolved.

So what had happened? Again I had tantalizing information that only raised more questions than it answered. But one thing was certain: I had confirmed the existence of the creature.

Of course, I told no one. There was no point; who would believe me? When I got proof, I’d show it to the world. Until then, there was no point in making a fool of myself.

A week later, while still musing over this incident, I was visiting my friends Bryce and Donna. Bryce has a home cinema that’s his pride and joy and he often nags me to come over so that he can show off its latest features. He’s also an aficionado of old westerns, so as often as not we watch grainy old black-and-white films on his state-of-the-art high-definition television system. Still, I like Bryce and Donna and I’m happy to indulge Bryce.

The film we were watching was nothing to write home about; indeed, I can now recall neither its title nor any of the actors. But early in the movie, the foolish cavalry captain gave away his position to the Injuns by using his binoculars to look for them. They saw the reflected glint of the sun from the binoculars’ lenses and -- GOOD LORD, that’s what the creature saw! The reflected moonlight from the flat front lens of my telescope! The geometry was perfect -- a perfectly straight line from the moon to my lens back to the creature. He would have seen an unusually bright light where there usually was no light.

My mind raced. He could easily have seen that the light wasn’t an artificial light -- the lights inside houses are yellowed by reflection, and this was moonlight reddened by the atmosphere -- it would have been a completely different color. Just as I had gotten to recognize the lights of every house visible from my place, I’m sure that he would have developed a familiarity with the lights of my house. And if he knew anything about optics, he’d know that I was looking straight at him.

Assuming, of course, that he was intelligent enough to think that way.

I excused myself from Bryce and Donna and raced home. Once I got there, I had second thoughts. If he really did see me, what would stop him from coming around for a visit? I was at the top of the road; there was nothing but empty land between my place and that ridge. I didn’t sleep well that night.

With the arrival of morning, I felt a little silly about my nighttime fears. Things always seem more ominous in the dark. That’s why it’s usually wise to sleep on a problem.

But late that afternoon, as I was walking down my dirt driveway, I saw something that froze me in my tracks: the dirt had been brushed. Somebody had used a broken branch to sweep the dirt alongside the driveway.

Somebody had hidden their tracks. Somebody had been here.

Up until now, this had been a fascinating puzzle; now, it was a terrifying threat. I dashed around the place, looking for tracks, for sweepings, for anything that might help me understand what I was dealing with. I saw nothing. I went back to the original location and carefully traced a likely path, but again I saw nothing other than the original sweeping. But that sweeping was unmistakable. The dirt had definitely been swept with some sort of branch or rough tool.

Now I was scared. I jumped into my car, drove down to town, and spent the night in a hotel. I didn’t sleep much. Mostly, I planned. And as soon as the shops opened in the morning, I went straight to a gun shop. I told the proprietor that I wanted a gun because I lived up in the hills and was having problems with wild animals.

"What kind of animals?" he asked.

I hesitated.

"Pigs? They’re sure a nasty problem."

I remembered about the wild pigs of central California. Brought here by the Russians centuries ago to provide a source of meat. Feral now, and rather dangerous.

"Yes, pigs." I said. "They’re tearing up my garden."

"Yep, they’ll do that. But why don’t you just bring in some pig hunters? Those pigs are mean! They’ll kill you if you don’t know what you’re doing."

"I’m hoping to just scare them off. I really don’t want to kill them. I just want something to make a big noise with. Of course, I’d also like to have the protection just in case I really need it."

"OK, then what you need is a big handgun, something big enough to bring down a pig with one shot but small enough to handle in the brush. Here’s just what you need."

So I bought myself a gun, went through the training, got all checked out, and steeled myself for the confrontation. I knew that I couldn’t wait for him to come to me; I had to go find him myself. Not that I wanted to kill him. I just wanted to put an end to this impossible situation. Get some answers, resolve things one way or the other.

I packed carefully. Lots of water, some trail mix. My binoculars and camera. A first-aid kit and a snakebite kit. I also included four flares, just in case I needed to signal for help. And of course, the gun and plenty of ammunition. I was loaded for bear.

I started from my house at sunup. It was only three miles to the ridge top, but there was a deep canyon to traverse; probably 4,000 feet of vertical difference along the way. This was going to be a tough hike. The first half-mile was easy, strolling through cattle land. But the fence proved tougher to climb than I thought, and I tore my jeans getting over it. I got about a hundred feet in when I found myself confronted by a tall stand of poison oak.

Now, poison oak and I don’t get along very well. I hate the stuff, and spray it mercilessly. I don’t like using herbicide on my land, but for poison oak, all reservations are brushed aside. Die, poison oak, die!

So I had no choice but to go around it. Unfortunately, going around it involved a long detour. And once I got past the first patch, there was another big patch. And another, and another. I zigged and zagged my way up the slope until finally I stood at the top of the canyon. Fortunately, the east-facing slope of the canyon had less poison oak than the west-facing slope, so the trip down wasn’t so bad. I took care, though, to map out a path up the opposite side as I went down.

I also maintained a sharp lookout. My quarry could be anywhere, and I had no intention of being taken by surprise. I moved slowly and carefully, pausing often to watch and listen. And I kept my gun drawn and ready at all times.

At last I reached the dry creek bed at the bottom of the canyon. From here on it was straight up all the way to the ridge top. Nearly 3,000 feet, and the day was starting to get hot. To make matters worse, I ran into thick brush. I don’t know what kind of brush it was, but it was thick and hard to penetrate. Worse, there was plenty of poison oak scattered through it. I made very slow progress struggling upwards.

Usually brush like this is penetrated by deer trails, but I couldn’t find much open space. It was almost impenetrable. The other thing about brush is that it’s easy to lose your bearings. This brush was nearly six feet high; I could not see very far in any direction. Fortunately, I was able to keep my bearings by checking my progress against landmarks on the other side of the steep canyon.

The brush began to give way to open space about two-thirds of the way up. There was still plenty of brush, but at least now there were gaps and the occasional oak tree. One observation struck me: lower down, I had seen no trails, no passages, no signs of human passage whatsoever. The water district has been mighty effective in keeping people away. But further up, such passages began to appear, and they looked fairly fresh. I found a trail heading upward and followed it towards the ridge top.

It was by now early afternoon, and scorching hot. I paused to rest in the shade of a mighty oak. One of its branches hung over the path, seven feet above the ground. I sat quietly, listening, looking around, drinking some water. I glanced up and noticed something odd about the oak branch. It was mostly covered with lichens and rough bark, but there was one spot that seemed smooth. I stared closely at it, trying to understand its import. My god, I realized -- it’s a wear spot from grabbing the branch to duck underneath it. For me, that branch is so high that I ignore it, but if you’re nine feet tall, you’d have to duck underneath it, and you’d want to grab it with your hand to steady yourself as you did. The wear spot is exactly where you’d put your hand if you were nine feet tall and left-handed.

I moved a little down the trail to get a view of the other side of the branch. Sure enough, there was another wear spot on the branch, but on the opposite side -- as would be the case if the creature was left-handed. So now I knew that he was left-handed!

I heard a sound. It was the dry crackling of twigs being broken. Instantly my eyes darted in the direction of the sound, followed by my gun. I froze in my kneeling position, starting hard, listening intensely. Then I heard another sound, fainter, but unmistakable: a branch brushing against something. It came from the same direction. Slowly, slowly, I rose, keeping the gun pointed at the source of the sound, raising my head to get some kind of view. I could see the tops of the brush at the location of the sound, but nothing more. He was hunched down, crawling.

Then a third sound, maybe three feet closer. He was moving towards me! My heart was pounding, but I had plenty of view in that direction. I’d see him at least twenty feet away. I was frightened but not terrified. This was the moment of truth that had eluded me for so long!

Then came a fourth sound, but it came from a completely different quarter. I must be mistaken, I thought. Then a fifth sound, from directly behind me, followed immediately by a sixth sound from the original direction. I hadn’t been mistaken; there were at least three of them, and they were stalking me!

Slowly I moved back down the trail, wanting to insure that I wasn’t surrounded. But in this brush, it was impossible to move silently; I too cracked a twig. I froze, and the sound I made seemed to trigger them. Suddenly I heard crackling twigs from all around me. I panicked, fired a shot into the air, and bolted down the trail, gun pointing ahead. I could hear activity behind me, but I was too busy ducking and twisting past brushy obstacles to turn around to look. The trail turned hard to the left, and I could see motion in the brush, moving to cut me off. I yelled and fired at the motion, still running.

A scream went up. It was most definitely NOT a human scream. I cannot describe it properly; the voice was deep but the pitch was high. It sounded like Darth Vader screaming in a falsetto voice.

I froze again. This creature I had just shot could not have been one of the original pursuers; perhaps there were more just ahead. Perhaps I was walking into a trap. I rubbernecked desperately. Which way, which way? Then I realized that the pursuit had stopped; there was no sound whatever. They were dead silent.

I felt like a deer in car headlights. How could they be doing that -- stopping all at once? They couldn’t possibly be communicating with each other, not in this brush, not without me hearing. But it was obvious that they were coordinating their actions. I couldn’t risk waiting for them to work out their plan; I picked out a likely opening in the line of brush ahead and started running. Barely had I gotten ten feet when I saw one of them rise out of the brush on my left. It was not thirty feet away, and for the first time, I could see one of my pursuers clearly.

It was definitely tall; my original estimate of nine feet seemed about right. Its head was definitely small for its frame, about the size of a child’s head. The head was quite round, almost spherical, and I can’t recall any ears. The eyes had a malevolent glare to them; perhaps, however, I am not entirely objective on this point.

I turned to fire at it; it ducked back down into the brush. "So, you know what guns are, do you?" I thought. I continued on my path, past it and into the brush. I could hear them moving through the brush around me, but I kept to my desperate downward path. I even ignored the poison oak.

Twice I paused, turned, and fired a single round at nothing in particular. They seemed to respect the gunfire. Slowly, it seemed, I pulled ahead of them. Perhaps I could navigate the brush faster than they could. Perhaps their pursuit was half-hearted.

Halfway down to the creek bed, the strap of my backpack caught on a branch. I struggled with it for a few seconds before fear overcame me and I dumped it and continued on. I had barely gone twenty steps when I recovered enough of my senses to realize that all my spare ammunition was in the backpack -- and I had already fired most of the rounds in the gun. I hadn’t heard any pursuit for nearly a minute -- perhaps they’d given up. So I turned back.
Just as I reached the backpack, one of them leapt out of the brush not ten feet from me. I didn’t even have time to look up at its face; all I remember seeing was its legs, long, hairless, and having a very odd-shaped knee structure. I just fired blindly at it, emptying the gun. I couldn’t have missed, but I heard no cry of pain. It just plopped downward in front of me. I had already turned to run before it hit the ground. Completely panicked now, I dropped the gun and ran in stark terror, babbling insanely as I ran. I remember reaching the creek bottom and heading frantically up the other side with uncommon energy. I never looked back and I don’t remember anything else from my flight.

I got back to my house, leapt into the car, and fled. I swear that I saw a vague shape in the trees moving towards me as I turned the corner of my driveway. I gunned it and roared away. I didn’t stop until I got into town. I just sat there in the driver’s seat, trying to collect my wits. It’s strange; the first rational thought that entered my mind was the realization that I had better wash off the poison oak poison. So I checked into a hotel and stood in the shower for a long time, trying to get a grip on myself.

The damnable thing about it was that I still didn’t have any proof. I couldn’t go to the police and confess to trespassing and (I suppose) hunting without a license. And they certainly would never believe my story. So I just stood there in the shower, the water running down my back, trying to get a grip on reality.

Faced with the most traumatic experience of my life (and likely more traumatic than most people will ever experience), I retreated into a stupor. I ate some food at the fast-food restaurant next door -- I can’t recall what. I sat in my room watching stupefying TV shows. I just stared at the television screen as one show after another rolled by. The prime-time shows, the late night news, some comedian, a talk show, and on into the morning hours. Eventually I fell asleep with the TV still on.

I awoke late, feeling better and ready to take action. I dressed in the now-laundered clothes, ate breakfast, and got in my car. That’s when I saw the smoke. The hills above town were ablaze. I gaped in awe at a huge fire covering thousands of acres. This was easily the biggest fire in memory. And the center of the burned area appeared to be the same ridge I had fled from yesterday. I headed back up to my place but the roads were blocked. I spent the rest of the day watching television reports of the conflagration back in the hotel room. It had started in the early evening, deep in the canyon that I had fled through, out of sight. By the time it had been spotted early the next morning, it had spread to thousands of acres. The authorities were convinced that it was arson.

I was simultaneously horrified, baffled, and excited. Why would the creatures burn their home? Was this some form of mass suicide, knowing that they had been exposed? One thing was for sure -- the fire would bring all sorts of people tramping over the ridge, and surely evidence of their existence would be found. At last I would be able to tell my story!

It took three days to encircle the fire, during which time none of us hill-dwellers were allowed up to our properties. On the fourth day, we were allowed back. Many of our homes had been destroyed. For some strange reason, mine had survived the flames. I couldn’t resist the temptation to hike over to the burnt-out area on the ridge.

The going was much easier this time, although there were still a few hot spots to avoid. When I reached the near side of the canyon, I looked across to the site of my battle and flight. It was all completely charred, but there were tracks -- human tracks -- in the black stubble. Apparently the firefighters had spent plenty of time in just the area I had been in. I stood a long time on that height, looking at the total devastation of the place. Why had they done it? It just didn’t make sense.

When I returned to my house, there were several police cars waiting in my driveway. "What’s going on?" I asked.

"Arsonists always return to the scene to survey their work", the officer replied, almost sadly. "You’re under arrest."

The rest is all part of the public record. They had found the scorched remains of my backpack and the gun, which they had traced to me. They found the flares I had brought -- but the flares had been set off in cunningly chosen locations to get the fire started. They had statements from a neighbor who saw me hiking up towards the ridge, and another neighbor who had seen me barreling down the road that evening. And of course, my explanation was so bizarre that the guilty verdict was assured.

And no, they never did find any trace of the creatures. They made a perfunctory search, but the fire had destroyed all traces of their presence. My guess is that the creatures moved on to some new remote location where they could live their lives in peace and solitude. Someplace where the moonrise offers no threat to them.