A drifting couple leave their bustling Chicago neighborhood to photograph a covered bridge outside of the wife's rural hometown. Desperate for money, they are being paid to spend the night at the supposedly haunted spot, photograph anything unusual, and return the pictures to an eccentric anthropology professor. The husband's bitter cynicism and the wife's open-hearted curiosity only increase the stress on their rickety marriage, but when strangers arrive at their overnight photo shoot, violence, ritual murder, and trans-dimensional experiences will change how they view themselves, each other, and the shape of the universe.
T H E Y A W N I N G , C O L O R L E S S C H A S M
DEDICATED TO BRIAN O'CONNELL,
My friend and faithful fan
“The Ceylon Covered Bridge is located on CR 950 S. at Limberlost County Park in the county area outside of Ceylon and Geneva. Originally and historically known as Baker Bridge, it was built in 1879 by Bridge Smith Co. of Toledo, Ohio, and was one of 23 covered bridges spanning the Wasbash River. Today, the Ceylon Covered Bridge is the last remaining covered bridge over the Wabash, and was added to the National List of Historic Places in 2007. Running 135 feet long, the Ceylon Covered Bridge was fabricated using a Howe Truss design.
“...this bridge is often found on lists of haunted placed [sic] in Indiana. One such story tells of a grim event happening there, although there is of course no factual proof. Local lore states that a group of teenagers performed a séance on the bridge many years ago. During the séance, a body supposedly fell through the roof, leaving a large blood stain on the floorboards by the pentagram drawn by the teens. Perhaps this is why it needed restoration. [Many locals avoid the area today, and some claim that a portal to another world was opened during the séance, and that it remains open to this day -- REDACTED SINCE AUGUST 2018].”
— Town of Geneva Website, www.townofgeneva.org/ceylon-covered-bridge
“Throughout history and literature, from the supernatural flights in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Tam O’Shanter’ to fairy tales like ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ and the ‘Cry Baby’ bridges of urban legend, bridges have been viewed as areas with unusual supernatural activity. They are places prone to haunting and notorious for dangers both real and imagined. Many scholars identify this association with bridges’ perceived ability to defy natural law, allowing mortals to cross areas which nature never intended them to span. Conscious of this break in the natural order, superstitious cultures believed that bridges were capable of attracting the interest and fascination of dark, outer powers.”
— Millennium Book of Folklore, Superstition, and Mysticism, pg. 125
The interstate reached out between two shaggy bands of maples and ash trees, rising and falling along the humps of hills, carrying the small electric car east – away from the vivid frenzy of Chicago, towards the slumbering prairies where her family had been settled for four generations. She did not welcome the return, but it paid money and they needed money. More than anything they needed a distraction. Her husband sat behind the wheel, looking distantly over the dashboard as if watching every yard of pavement disappear under their bumper with the bored desperation of a man longing to pull over and walk off into the woods. He reached over dully and turned the radio up, returning his hand to the part of the steering wheel where it had rested without prior interruption for the past hour. His eyes returned to the pavement, counting the yards slipping under their tires.
She hadn’t made him come back to her hometown since their wedding – that was four years ago – and he had been perfectly content keeping five hours between them. They Skyped into her family get-togethers and sent cards for Christmas and birthdays, but other than her mother’s triannual visits to Chicago, they hadn’t been forced to leave the liveliness of Wicker Park where his vegan donut shop had given them plenty of excuses to stay put: the holidays were busy times; he had to be up by 3:00 am six days a week; Saturdays were the only day he had off, and he needed it to unwind. It wasn’t that her family was obnoxious or even unpleasant, but they were backwards and ignorant and infused their family reunions with subtle obligation and guilt.
He wasn’t a practicing vegan – sometimes he ate fish, or eggs, and once a year or so he might have free range chicken – but her family always made a fuss out of presenting him with a special salad when they visited. She was a strict vegetarian, so also attracted a degree of confusion, but at least she could put ranch dressing on her salads, and could eat Aunt Jenny’s whipped cream-saturated dirt pudding. She had promised him – after five years of living together – that if they got married he wouldn’t have to visit home unless it was an emergency. Now Aunt Jenny was dead and more of the grandchildren had moved away – to Denver, to Columbus, to Nashville, to Minneapolis, to Houston – and Christmases and Thanksgivings were mostly for the parents and grandparents. They had been freed of their obligation to pretend that the past was the present, to be anchored to the ignorance of obsolete generations and dying elders.
Instead, they spent the majority of their time travelling – seeing the world and living out of hostels. The excuse about his workload was a lie; he had two managers to run things when he needed to leave town, and the vegan pastries were impossibly popular with the Wicker Park community, keeping money flowing into their coffers. She was a photographer focused on boudoir photoshoots for single women, elopements in the Lake Michigan area, and photoshoots of couples on vacation. This took her out of town and all over the country, and most of the time she brought him with her; he had majored in Business with a minor in Photography, which is how they met: she was a teaching assistant for one the professors in her department and he was finishing his thesis for the minor – a black-and-white study of drapery in abandoned houses – and she was drawn to his vision; he had a taste for delicacy that struck her as unusual for a man, and spent the semester trying to get to know the moody, bearded junior with the green eyes. Since then they had been inseparable – they shared everything: a love of travel and photography, of ‘80s music and postmodern art, of whiskey and cigarettes, of road trips and dive bars. They burrowed into the lush frenzy of an itinerant life – roaming spontaneously – and were fused by their shared passions.
But the past four years of legal marriage brought with it a solemness – an end of adventure and wonder – that haunted them with monotony. This only grew heavier as they neared thirty and began to realize the weight of their debts; three backpacking trips to Europe in the last four years, a vacation in South Korea, and a week spent in India had come at considerable cost, and while they both tried to work hard enough to afford their adventures, the income from the donut shop and her photoshoots was just enough to support their life in Chicago and on the road, but it hardly left enough to cover two overseas journeys a year.
And that was why they were driving east – towards her hometown on an assignment: take photos of the Ceylon covered bridge at sunset, night, and sunrise. The overnight commission brought with it a staggering price tag of $5,670 – enough to pay off their last trip to Amsterdam – and easily excused the necessity of leaving the lights of the city for the dust of the Heartland.
To find the bridge in this story you will need to go to a town in northeastern Indiana that used to be a wilderness called the Limberlost Swamp. The swamp itself – largely drained but still alive on the outskirts of the town, going so far as to hug the sides of Highway 27 as it heads south – has a strange history. The American Indians had a name for it which the Yankees pronounced “Loblolly” – a pretty word that sounds like summer and youth, but its meaning in the Miami language is “stinking bog” – an allusion to the sulfuric odor of rancid vegetation and decomposing animals. To the Miami tribe the Loblolly Swamp was a place to be avoided – never to be entered too close to dusk, and never to be hunted in alone.
A tangled, buzzing marshland known for its blend of beauty and treachery, it gained its English name during the infancy of Indiana’s statehood after “Limber” Jim Corbus disappeared in its thorny clutches. Limber Jim was a popular hunter and lumberjack, known for his skill in traversing the bogs and woodlands, and yet one day he entered the swamp with a rifle over one shoulder, and it never let him out. Days later the lumberjacks’ calls of “Turn out! Limber’s lost!” were heard booming amongst the labyrinth of trees, but the search was a failure, and the swamp where Limber was lost became a source of superstitious anxiety until it was gradually drained and dominated by human ingenuity: whatever had taken Limber from the realm of the living surely need not be worried about any longer. As the swamp water receded into ditches and rivers and lakes, dirt roads were cut through the drying woodlands, and in 1879 a bridge was constructed over one of those gorges – a fat, lazy projection of the winding Wabash River as it snakes its way through the Hoosier interior – and although the road has been diverted since the 20th century, the old bridge still stands.
To make your way there you will need to drive north on Highway 27 until you pass through the town of Geneva, turn right at the Ehre Farm Stand just outside of town, where they sell tomatoes and peppers in the summer, and pumpkins and onions in the fall. This road will twist its way through a village called Ceylon – a loose collection of houses gathered on an informal grid of streets with tree names like Elm and Maple – a town who lends its name to the covered bridge that you’re looking for. The road will crook and jerk until you are clear of Ceylon, upon which you will find it heading east with fallow fields on either side of you. In recent years the trees have begun to overtake the land where the swamp used to live, and you will likely notice the horizon’s dark tree line and how the fields have become overgrown with saplings. I haven’t been there in years, so I imagine that the saplings have now turned into young trees, and that the thick brush that I can picture reaching its arms towards the road on either side have now become thick with newer saplings as the reclamation increases its gains.
As the road claws eastward, you will soon notice a flash of red and white: the walls of a covered bridge surrounded by the deep greens of the Wabash woodlands. Shortly after you recognize the white outline of its rounded mouth, you will find yourself pulling off the road on a gravel path leading up to the bridge. Off to one side – surrounded by swaying yellow grass as high as a man’s elbow – there will be a decaying pavilion, a rusted iron water pump, and a sun-faded sign announcing that you have arrived at Limberlost Park, and that you are now in the shadow of the Ceylon Bridge. Those who grew up in southern Adams County either saw the bridge as a historical curiosity that smacked obnoxiously of rural sentimentality – the sort that adores split-rail fences, Amish buggies, and paintings of barefoot children fishing – or were familiar with its strange past, and harbored a fearful respect for it.
As you exit your car and walk up to it, you will quickly realize that there are many people who have not developed this somber reverence: while the exterior walls are a deep, heavy red, the interior is unpainted, and the grey, aging lumber is brilliantly laced with four decades worth of graffiti. Most of it consists of lovers’ names paired with dates or encircled in a quickly sprayed heart. Before the advent of spray paint, names were hacked in the wood with knives, then written in pen, then markers. While the majority of the writing is in this romantic vein (Kim + Andy ’84; Jennifer and Kendall Foreva 8-9-97; Lizzie Luvs Tyler; etc. etc.), a great deal take the much darker route that can sadly be expected from rural Indiana graffitists. Swastikas, Klan emblems, pentagrams, anarchist symbols, and sinister runes blend in almost invisibly amidst the harmless oaths of eternal love. Some of the more obscene comments have been spray painted over in dark grey (the work of the parks department), but these grey blobs are tabula rasas begging to be defaced with new slurs. The bridge is lovely on the outside, interesting on the inside, but unquestionably disturbing under close scrutiny – a museum of human emotions, a gallery of personal passions, it has been a touchstone of the area’s collective unconscious for 150 years, and its power to elevate petty, shallow love and deep, resounding hate on equal pedestals has made it a psychological curiosity for tourists who are expecting a quaint covered bridge only to find themselves standing in the Temple of Id.
I cannot verify if the legend of the séance is true or whether any living people claim to have been present at it. It is said to have taken place before I was born – some say in October 1985, others in October 1988 – and since the pentagram was drawn in chalk (if it was drawn at all) it has long been sponged away. If a portal was opened by some esoteric ritual that night, it would be surprising: rural Midwestern teens aren’t usually known for their scholarship or their attention to detail. But if something did happen like the legends say, the Miami tribe would not have been terribly surprised: the Loblolly was always considered a portal to the spirit world, and while the tribe chose to bury their dead in a more favorable area – one that didn’t reek of sulfur and swamp gas – they felt that the spirits of the unhappy dead roamed the thickets and briars of the Loblolly bogs. But this is still more folklore that can’t be verified by historians or scientists.
It is true that there have been a high number of suicides in this place; seven since 1968, most of whom shot themselves in the parking lot, in the pavilion, or inside the bridge itself, although two managed to scale the rafters and hang themselves from the ceiling. Romantics like to imagine that a supernatural energy preys on weak-minded or weak-willed people – vulnerable types who are unfortunate enough to drive past the bridge, or to have a flat tire in its vicinity. Realists are more likely to think that the solitude of the unfrequented park is less of a spiritual magnet to the emotionally damaged than it is a tremendously convenient spot to perform an act which would otherwise be difficult to accomplish in one of the surrounding small towns.
It is a quiet place to park a car without attracting attention, and far from any houses, unlikely to be patrolled by police, and a public site where the body will be easily noticed in the morning, making it attractive to loners who would prefer that to having their body scrapped off of their easy chair three months after the fact, and to family people who would prefer their remains to be found by a passing patrolman rather than a spouse or child. Indeed, most of the suicides were committed by married parents who drove to the lonely spot in the middle of the night instead of running the errand they were entrusted with. Five were women in their thirties or forties, and two were men in their middle age. The papers have always been discreet about these events, but gossip flourishes in rural towns like these – the stories are officially repressed, but this only leads to stronger interest and more gruesome details.
The first modern suicide was by a father of two – separated from his wife and recently laid off from his job at the furniture factory – who drove to the bridge on an October morning while the milky mists rising from the Loblolly Marsh had hidden all but the spine of its roof from view. Two hours later a driver noticed the orange glow of headlights peering through the fog. Expecting to find a stranded motorist, he instead found an abandoned truck, and the police later found his corpse in the river. He had drowned in the shallow slime at the base of the bridge’s foundation; his eyes, nostrils, and throat were stuffed flush with yellow mud.
In October, 1998, one woman – a single mother of three – had hanged herself from the rafters over the exact spot where the pentagram had been drawn during the infamous séance which was said to have opened an interdimensional window. Only 25, her nude body was found two days later by a couple who had come there to picnic. It was a dark, overcast day, and they abandoned their picnic to take cover in the bridge when a storm blew in. In the murk they didn’t see the body turning above them until the male felt her toes graze the top of his head and looked up. Years later a middle aged mother drove there in the middle of the night and shot herself in the head two weeks before her favorite daughter’s wedding. She left no note and had no recorded history of depression. Her traumatized daughter skipped both the funeral and the wedding, and moved away to Denver without a word to her widower father or stunned fiancé.
This is what drew people to the bridge – a love of the macabre, a fascination with the occult, maybe even a soothing hope for something bigger than themselves. Something very different and far more material was driving the couple who were headed there from their Chicago apartment. Neither of them cared for or were remotely interested in ghosts or witchcraft or true crime. They needed money, and they hoped to get it by feeding another man’s obsession with the occult. It was an autumn afternoon with feathery gold traces of vapor brushed across a radiant blue sky, the sort of day when life seems suspended for a moment as if sinking slowly into water – so slowly that you don’t notice the descent. The trees were burning with color; a general blurring of ochre and sienna into a sparkling bronze, occasionally punctuated with bursts of scarlet and lilac, and as they passed through Plymouth, heading southeast down Highway 30 (then turning due south on Route 5), it was just warm enough that they could roll the windows down and drink in the fragrant air of cornfields and woodlands.
“Scott said he’d pay you next Monday?”
It was the first thing he had said to her since they had driven through Rochester.
“Yeah. That’s what he says. He said if I can get the editing done by Saturday he would add $130 to make it an even fifty-eight hundred.”
“This is weirdly important to him. I hope he doesn’t expect to make a lot off of this book.”
“He says there’s a niche market for it.”
“Maybe now. Maybe with old white people. I don’t know anyone under 35 who would want to read about rural superstitions.”
“Scott is an old white man. Well, old-ish. Fifty-six… And someday you’ll be an old white man,” she laughed. It was the first time she had laughed during the entire drive.
“Technically. But no one will think of me that way. Just a chill guy with grey hair who digs Prince and doesn’t skimp on pot with his friends.”
“But you will be old…”
His face seemed to harden and settle. He didn’t like the thought of aging, as if he would somehow sink into the past like her dead Aunt Jenny. Especially now, as they drove past small towns with weather-stained siding and tall grass – past farmhouses with bowing roofs and boarded windows. He missed the city already. But not just that; he loved driving through the red deserts of New Mexico or up the craggy hills of Colorado, or through the forested ridges of Vermont. It wasn’t the country exactly that annoyed him – it was the energy of this particular part of the country: resistant, negligent, insular, and deluded. The people living in these towns were content with their lives – small, empty, visionless lives – and he hated them for it. How could a person house something as grand and expansive as the human spirit in their brain and find nothing insane about being raised in a town without a building over three stories in sight, living in that same place for the rest of their life, and then bringing children into it. The cycle repeats itself, and so – he thought – did the ignorance and stupidity.
“When is Scott publishing this thing? Are you getting any of the royalties?”
“He said next April, and if I agree to do any other shoots he said he’d write up a contract.”
“What other shoots?”
“Well, the book is about superstitions and folklore all over the Great Lakes Region. There are probably sixty or fifty sites that he’s writing about.”
“And he needs an overnight photoshoot for each goddamn one!?”
“No,” she said sternly, “The only reason this one is overnight is because he wants me to watch it and see if I… see anything…”
“Holy shit. You’re not serious; this is a ghost hunting trip? In 2018. And the two of us with college degrees. Why doesn’t he get one of these Holy Roller yokels to do it? They believe in all kinds of bullshit just like this – Zombie Jesus, water into wine, Holy Ghosts. Get someone who doesn’t use logic in their daily life for Christ’s sake.”
“He didn’t say I had to believe in supernatural things. Besides, the photoshoot is commissioned whether or not there are any pictures he’s interested in. He wants shots of it at sunset and dusk, shots of it at night, and shots of it at sunrise. He just wants me to take pictures of anything strange if something strange happens. The rest of the places he’s writing about aren’t as important, I guess. He says this one is going to be the centerpiece of the book.”
“I don’t know how a scholarly published writer with a masters and a PhD can possibly consider this a good use of time. His other books are sensible enough – anthropology, politics, history – why is he bothering with this superstitious B.S.?”
“You’ve only met Scott twice. I’ve been to his house three or four times when I was doing the photos for his last book, and I can tell you that superstition isn’t a random subject to him – it’s a huge part of his research.”
“What do you mean?”
“His house. It’s full of esoteric art and books and artifacts.”
“He’s an anthropology professor.”
“Yeah, but a lot of them aren’t just arrowheads and tapestries – a lot of them are… occult, I guess.”
“Pentagrams and goat’s heads?”
“Stranger than that. I can’t describe them, really. You just know when you see them. Especially the statues he has. They’re weird. But he’s always been super friendly. He has a positive energy about him. I think the supernatural stuff is just an outlet because he’s always so positive… But yeah, he thinks this book will sell well in some kind of niche, occult market. He says a lot of people know about the bridge and its backstory, and he was like, really interested when he heard I grew up nearby.”
The sun was setting soon – it was October 13th, which fell on a Saturday that year – and the sky was aflame with scarlet light as it became cradled in swathes of violet clouds. The sun still hung softly in the middle of the sky as they drove through the shady town of Berne, over a few miles of woody farmland, and across a bridge spanning the Wabash River (at a point where two strange, muddy islands seemed to be fusing beneath the span). Less than a mile from this spot was the Ehre farm stand with fat golden pumpkins and bundles of cornstalks gleaming in the golden light. Here was the turn onto First Street, two blocks east and then a left onto Third Street, two blocks north and then a curving right onto High Street, which turned into Covered Bridge Road and lead them through the Loblolly Swamp to the dark glen of Limberlost Park.