Consider this story a work of fiction.
Our tale takes place almost three decades ago. In those days our modern surveillance state was still a thing of dystopian fiction, and people went about their lives accepting that most events were unfilmed and unremembered. The # key was a barely-used button on your slick cordless phone and the word “google” was just a comically obscure term for a number with 100 zeroes after it.
Halloween that year fell on a Saturday night, and after the trick-or-treaters had retired, the streets of East Lansing were filled with costumed students wandering from party to party.
I was no exception, having dressed as an Ohio State bando (it’s a long story) along with my friend Chris, who was the Road Warrior. We were heading back to our residence hall and walking along (as the song says) the banks of the Red Cedar.
As we crossed the bridge at the Hannah Administration building, both of us felt a penetrating cold that stopped us in our tracks. It left as quickly as it had arrived, and seemed to head downstream, past the rapids on our right.
After a moment of silence, my friend spoke.
“Did you feel that?”
“The chill? Yes.”
“It was weird.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
We made it back to the dorms without further incident, but my dreams that night were haunted with visions of ravenous hunger.
The next morning, I was awakened by an insistent knocking on my door.
“What do you want?” I croaked.
“It’s me, Chris! Open up!”
I pulled on a pair of sweat pants and staggered to the door. Chris was an early riser who liked to jog, and I hated him for it. No sooner had I turned the bolt than he pushed inside waving a copy of the campus newspaper.
“Do you remember last night? That chill we felt on the bridge?”
“Yeah, of course,” I said with a shudder, a surge of fear shocking me awake.
“Someone died just downstream from us at almost the same time we were there.”
He held out the paper, folded to highlight an article about the death of a drunk student the night before. The deceased and his girlfriend were coming back from a party and were near Beale Garden when he apparently fell in. She shouted for help and ran to one of the security phones, but by the time help arrived, he was dead.
“If it had been daytime, we would have been close enough to see them,” Chris said.
“I didn’t hear anyone calling for help,” I said, passing it back to him.
“How would we, over the rapids?” He was right. The river was swollen with fall rains, making the rapids in front of the Hannah building unusually loud. They were between us and the victim.
“Well, this sort of stuff happens,” I said, sitting down on the couch and trying to quiet my mind.
“Come on! We both felt it, it was like an icy wind and it went right to where the guy died.”
“What do you want me to say? It was creepy, I grant you that.”
He waved his hands irritably. “You don’t get it.” He glanced at his digital watch. “And I have to go grab my laundry. We’ll talk about it some more later. Dinner downtown?”
“Sure, El Az?”
“Sounds good. See you at 6.”
I should have done laundry, studied, or a half-dozen other things after he left, but instead I went to the MSU library, and on my way passed the scene of the drowning. All was peaceful, and no improvised memorial had been placed.
Once inside the library, I was at a loss. Why was I here? What could I possibly look up and what could I hope to find?
After a moment, I decided to flip through back issues of the newspaper, looking to see if there was anything interesting.
My studies drew me in and it was almost six o’clock when I noticed the time. I’d packed up my notes and walked across north campus and over to the basement restaurant El Azteca, known affectionately as El Az.
Chris was waiting for me, munching on chips and salsa and sitting in a booth along the far wall. Next to him was an open notebook that was barely legible in the dim light of the firetrap. The tables there have a single candle in a red glass holder. He had pulled his closer, using its faint light to help him review his notes.
“Hey, you made it!” he said as I set down across from him. “I did some research this afternoon and wanted to tell you about it.”
“Same here,” I said, unslinging my backpack and digging out my notes.
“Really? What did you look up?”
“Deaths along the river. I dug through the newspaper archives to see if there’s a pattern.”
“Did you find one?” he said leaning forward expectantly.
“Yep. As the population increased, so did the number of deaths. Pretty much what you’d expect.”
“What about drownings?”
“Yeah, there’s a pattern there as well: they happen in the river.”
“Yeah, so there was a period from the sixties and into the seventies when there weren’t any, but now they happen about one every year or two.”
After pausing to make our orders, Chris pointed to his notebook. “I’ve found something a lot more interesting. I decided to dig into the history of the university, and you won’t believe what I found.”
“Okay. So one story I found was that in the early days, when this place was first settled, the local Indians carefully avoided this stretch of the river. They called it sacred ground and when the college went up they said never to sleep near the river.” He squinted at his notes. “The spirit there has a great hunger, they said.”
“Weird. I thought they camped along side it, though. There’s a park with a sign in Okemos.”
“Yeah, on that part of the river. This part has an evil spirit or something. You have to make an offering to it or it will eat you and even then, there’s no guarantee it won’t have a snack. Best to stay away.”
I laughed. “Where did you see that?”
“It’s in Beale’s history of the college. He’s the guy they named the garden after. He wrote that once the agricultural college was established, it was decided to continue the Indian tradition of offering the first fruits of fall right where the garden is today. In fact, Beale hints that he chose that very spot because there was so much variety already there. You know, from the seeds of the previous years’ offerings.”
“Yep. As the school grew, the tradition changed, but they still maintained the form. When they built Beaumont Tower, they formed a semi-secret society called the Tower Guard and one of their duties was to put out the harvest basket.”
“How long did that go on?”
“Until just after World War II. Basically when the student population started booming. That’s also when they finally started building dorms near the river. Up to that point, they were all huddled away from it. There were classrooms, the library and even a concert stage, but no residential buildings. They clearly remembered the old Indians warning them against sleeping by the river.”
I shook my head. “I don’t buy it.”
“Okay,” he said, looking down at his notes. “Remember how I said the Tower Guard stopped doing the harvest basket? Well, in the late sixties the practice was revived by a bunch of hippies. It ran until the end of the seventies. Didn’t you say that there were no drownings for a stretch?”
“Yeah, but that’s got to be a coincidence.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “You can’t be seriously buying into this nonsense.”
“Why not? We can at least see what we find.”
“How? Find what?”
“After we’re done, we’ll bring a fruit basket down to the garden and see what happens.”
“You want to sit out in the cold waiting for the Great Pumpkin? Are you serious?”
“Yes. Hey, I’ll pay for your dinner. That make it worth your while?”
“Yeah, I guess so. I’ve always been a cheap date.”
I’d like to say that’s how the story ended. It wouldn’t be very exciting, but I could punch it up for comedic effect.
But that’s not how it ended. After eating, I insisted on getting some of my chores done and it wasn’t until after ten before I was ready to go. I put on an extra layer to keep warm, grabbed a bottle of Coke, a flashlight and – with an odd sense of foreboding – a rosary my grandmother gave me when I left for college. At that time I was openly hostile to organized religion, but I was also powerless to deny her request that I at least bring it with me.
Thus spiritually armed and well-clad, I joined Chris and we walked down the now-ominous path and set the incongruous gift basket by the river’s swollen banks. It was threatening to rain, but there was only a fitful breeze as we sat on one of the benches. He was reading a book on spirits while I sat there shivering.
“Okay, you had your fun,” I said, standing up and stretching. “I’m going to walk up to the Admin Building to warm up. Then I’m going to head back to the dorms. We can come back in the morning.”
“Okay. Before we go, I’ll go check the basket.”
I didn’t get far before I felt it. I was maybe fifty yards upstream when that cold snap hit me. It was more intense this time, and I spun around as it passed. I could see Chris was standing in front of the basket waving his hands like he was making an incantation.
Then he fell to the ground. I took off towards him at a dead sprint, pumping my arms as I ran. As I drew near, all my senses felt dulled. The lights around me became dim, the sounds of cars passing by ceased and my whole body was numb with cold.
My sense of smell, however, was painfully acute, and I was overwhelmed by the scent of blood. I reached Chris, and his eyes were wide open, but totally unseeing. His face was contorted with agony and his fists were clenched. His body was wracked by convulsions as he lay on the ground, each spasm inching him towards the river bank.
I crouched down next to him and here is where dumb luck (as some would call it) probably saved us both. As I was walking, I’d been fingering the rosary in my coat pocket. When I turned and broke out in a run, it was still in my hand. As soon as it touched Chris, he instantly relaxed and came to himself. He looked at me for a moment, and then kicked the basket, knocking it and its contents into the river.
“Take your damn tribute!” he shouted to no one in particular. He then stumbled to his feet and took off like a jackrabbit towards presumptive safety of the library.
I meant to do likewise, but the sound of splashing on the shore caused me to take a final backwards glance.
I expected to see a duck, perhaps, or a raccoon – some sort of nocturnal predator overwhelmed by our sudden bounty.
To be honest, I didn’t really see anything. It was a vision, I suppose, something unleashed in my mind in an extremity of fear. There’s no other way to explain it. An emaciated figure, wrapped in tattered skins and furs, frantically gnawing on a human forearm. Or was it proudly eating the heart of its fallen enemy? In that instant, endless images flickered through my mind, images of horrific violence and the insatiable hunger of a thousand starving winters.
It was all I could do not to throw up, because the blood smell was overwhelming, but I staggered to my feet and followed Chris up the path to the library, whose pretension of knowledge now seemed just as odious as the stench that surrounded me.
As I’ve said, this story is best treated as fiction. There’s no shaky phone cell phone video or enhanced audio to prove it happened. We never talked about what happened and the only time I brought it up before now was in a conversation with a priest ten years ago.
The campus has changed since then, of course. One change I didn’t expect was to see the campus canoe livery and the rowing team move their operations five miles away, out to Lake Lansing. Apparently there were a few close calls where people almost drowned during the nineties.
I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.