When Katie was a child, something inexplicable and terrifying happened to her family. This is a story about things that lie waiting just below the surface, things rarely seen, and how, when they suddenly come crashing into the sunlit world, they change everything. This is the story of what Katie’s mother saw.
In the fall of 1975, Katie was eleven years old. The previous summer, Katie’s family had moved to a newly-built neighborhood just outside of Los Angeles. While Katie and her brother, Jeff, went off to their new school and their father crisscrossed the country on business, Katie’s mother was home alone in the new house.
Katie’s mother was not just alone in the house; she was also alone in the neighborhood. Katie’s family were the first to move in and, while magnificent new homes lined their street, they all stood empty.
Katie’s mother was a housewife: she did the laundry, she cleaned the house, she cooked the meals, she raised the children. It was a lot of work and it kept her busy, but there were days when the laundry was folded and the floors were clean and Katie’s mother stopped to rest and the house seemed to somehow stick in time, to slip into still life.
It was on just such a day when Katie’s mother stood in the sun-drenched kitchen in the early afternoon. The dishes were drying in the dish rack next to the sink. In the basement below, the washing machine rumbled and hummed. It was late September and the heat was unbearable.
Katie’s mother took a sip of white wine and stared out the window to the rows of unfinished backyards and the dry, formless scrubland that stretched beyond to the horizon.
Something drew her eye to the yard two houses down. The half-laid carpet of sod was moving, undulating like a wave. No, not like a wave, Katie’s mother thought, more like a mouse under a rug.
The sod peaked and fell a half dozen times before it violently split open. Katie’s mother could see rough hands pushing the sod away from below.
For a moment she felt surprise to see another person in the neighborhood and wondered who was moving in. Then a head popped up from below and a figure climbed up into the sunlight.
When Katie’s mother passed away last year, Katie found the journals her mother had kept almost her entire life. Those journals and Katie’s recollections provide the material for this story. In her journal entry from that day, Katie’s mother described the figure she saw this way: “It was a man, but it had no humanity; it was an animal, but a dark intelligence burned within.”
What Katie’s mother saw was a man-like figure dressed in a rumpled dark suit, black tie half undone and swinging in the light breeze. But it was the head that intrigued and then frightened Katie’s mother the most. It was not a human head that swept the deserted yard, that looked to the empty houses, the empty yards, and then locked eyes with Katie’s mother.
It was an elephant’s head, grey and wrinkled, with a short, gangly trunk that looked through beady black eyes at the middle-aged woman drinking a glass of wine in her kitchen. It seemed oddly flustered at having been caught, and it hurriedly brushed the dirt from its sleeves.
It suddenly struck Katie’s mother that she was terribly alone in the house, in the neighborhood, and her family were very far away.
The elephant creature had finished his grooming when a hand from inside the hole reached up and waved a battered grey fedora in the air. The elephant snatched it up and then grabbed the hand to help his companion into the light.
This one was also dressed in a dirty old suit but had the head of a sad-looking boar with small, yellow tusks and was covered with black bristles that poked out from under a shabby hat. The boar and the elephant seemed to snort at each other and they eyed Katie’s mother across the barren backyards.
Katie’s mother thought the pair were such a bizarre sight that she almost started to laugh. They grunted and fussed like actors in a silent movie and it occurred to her that they seemed to lack speech. Their attempts to communicate suggested a mixture of vexation and embarrassment.
After only a few moments of this, they huffed off into the scrub land, and Katie’s mother wondered if something out of a fairy tale had revealed itself to her, albeit the figures looked more like harried commuters than fanciful creatures.
Katie’s mother set her glass on the counter. She poured herself another glass of wine and sat down to listen to the air conditioner’s hum.
Katie never knew what had happened to her mother until she read her mother’s journals, and she never would have believed any of it if not for what happened a few nights later.
It was after two in the morning when Katie awoke to a loud, persistent knocking that seemed to shake the whole house. In a flash she was out of bed and joined her brother in the hallway. Their father was still away on business, but their mother’s bedroom was empty.
Jeff and Katie raced downstairs, assuming that their mother was outside, knocking on the front door. But when they reached the foyer, they realized that the knocking wasn’t coming from the front door; it was coming from inside the house, from the basement door.
The basement door was in the kitchen and that’s where Katie’s mother was, standing with her back against the refrigerator, holding a revolver in her hand.
As Jeff and Katie entered the kitchen, the basement door shook with the powerful knocking, and Katie’s mother ran to her children, snatching them both in her arms.
The children spent the night huddled in a closet with their mother and their father’s gun. The knocking continued for another half-hour before it ceased.
The next day Katie’s mother assured them it was all a dream, that some pipes in the basement had burst. Soon, however, she had workmen toiling away in the basement, and it seemed to Katie that a burst pipe didn’t require so much hammering and concrete to fix. Later she would discover that a large section of the basement wall had been repaired for some unknown reason.
The years that followed were full of change for Katie and her family. Katie’s mother filed for divorce and, after a long custody dispute, she moved the children to Northern California. There, they lived in quiet serenity for a brief time, a time in which other strange events visited the family.
Whatever happened to Katie and her family is still a mystery. Reports of animal-headed creatures are not unknown, but they usually involve gods and mythological monsters. Did Katie’s mother witness the emergence of a new kind of god, one that roams the lonely suburbs in search of sacrifice and worship? Or were the strange creatures just looking do deliver a little wonder into someone’s life?
More than likely, Katie’s mother witnessed an inexplicable event, an instance when reality itself is balanced on a knife’s edge. It leans one way, and the world remains familiar and ordinary; it leans the other way, and everything slips away.