Bête Noir

In the beginning all was darkness and unknown. In the shadows lived the gods and demons, and in shuffling progression the gods and demons marched further away with each age. As man’s power waxed, the shadowed magnum mysterium of old was forced further and further to the reaches of comprehension.

The age of Man began of hunger, of desire, of wanting to know, and by degrees the world began to unfold in a neat succession of laws and taxonomies. A world of mysteries unfolded on a map of prosaic truths; a universe of questions revealed a convenient grid of answers.

It was just such a grid of answers I was thinking of one morning in early 2005; namely, the neat, orderly diagram of the famous London tube map.

It was scarcely daybreak as I arrived at Richmond tube station. I bought my travel card and strode through the turnstile into the waiting area, where a large Tube map stood in front of a large window, beyond which lay the platforms. I studied the map carefully. I’d never been to any station but Kentish Town on that particular end of the Northern Line and was debating whether to alight there or at the less familiar Camden Town stop. Camden Town would put me closer to the famous street market, but at least the streets around Kentish Town were somewhat more familiar to me.

It was then that a peculiar thought crossed my mind. What if, I thought, there were a station on a part of the Northern Line that I had actually traveled to, yet had no memory of it, and could find no reference to on any of the maps? I mulled the thought for a moment, and I came to the realization that if confronted with such a place I would be overcome with an immense sense of dread, no matter how unassuming this phantom tube station might appear.

The District Line train arrived, and I made my way in. I sat down on the tired upholstery, the sound of the generator chattering under me. I was alone in the train this particular morning, not that I particularly minded. It certainly gave me a moment to think while I made my way to my first connection at Hammersmith.

Somehow my mind drifted back to this theoretical phantom tube station, an unknown, a radical element on the neat little universe that was the London Tube map. Certainly, I wouldn’t be the only one keen to forget such an unsettling thing existed. Its very theoretical existence was unsettling to think of simply because it had no reason to exist.

Ah, but couldn’t there be so many other things in this world that fit that same disturbing mold? As the train lurched forward my mind wandered through anomalous landscapes, read tomes of insufferable gibberish, saw things that were at once familiar and terrifying. Had my imagination run away with me again? There was a brief chill, and it took a surprising effort to come around once again and realize that the chill was from the opening door.

“This is Kew Gardens. This is a District Line service for Upminster. The next station is Turnham Green,” a familiar voice said over the train’s speakers. Looking around I saw a handful of people stroll onto the train. One was a young Indian woman who carried a baby; another was an older couple who walked gingerly to the nearest seat. A thin fellow about my age in an England football hoodie sat at the other end of the car and whipped out a copy of the Sun, turning it promptly to the middle page and pretending to read an article. I smirked to myself. Britain’s infamous Sun always had a centerfold; hardly anyone bought it for the news stories.

I stayed on the train long after we had passed Hammersmith. Instead, I alighted at South Kensington and made my way to the surface. I always thought South Kensington was one of the nicest old stations. It had the look and feel of a time and place long since forgotten, with its breezy arcades that opened to a street lined with well-kept white buildings with proud ironwork.

Restlessly, I began to shuffle down the streets of Kensington. I passed the Natural History museum, and found it was still fully an hour before opening time. I’d enjoyed this museum many times; it was probably one of the most unusual buildings I’d ever seen. Its stone friezes of stylized creatures and grand hallways were something of a relic of the Gilded Age. One hallway in particular had the feel of a macabre art gallery, where the skeletons of ancient marine reptiles could be seen frozen in their final agonies, displayed on the wall for posterity. Other wings of the museum had a feel more like an eclectic wunderkammer, a display of oddities whose organization and labeling had come at a much later date.

I let my mind wander again, this time lost in a sea of peculiar images of the old cabinets of wonders in the homes of lords and barons, with their bizarre jumbling of odd and macabre items, part specimen collection and part reliquary. I fancied the unwrapped head of an Egyptian pharoah sharing shelf space with the bones of saints, the dessicated remains of tropical fish sharing pride of place with elaborate and ludicrous hoaxes crafted to look like mermaids and succubi. There was an age when the wonders of the earth and the wonders of the imagination seemed inseparable, an early time of discovery when specimens were items of inquiry and vanity. Then my mind’s eye rendered upon this old Wunderkammer a series of large, rude lightbulbs and mirrors. What difference was there, really, between the Dime Museum of a few generations ago and the Wunderkammer of centuries past? The cost of admission?

The dime museum melted away as I found myself crossing Kensington High Street. The walk signal changed, and I made my way briskly across the wide intersection. Once again on the sidewalk, my mind drifted once more, an old-time magic lantern show of curious images from long ago playing even as I somehow kept aware enough to avoid the pickpockets and speeding motorcycles that crossed my path.

At length I found myself at Portobello Road, familiar territory. I had bought a few small things there in the past, but for the most part I found the prices high and the selection limited. Camden Market, so I’d heard, was where the Portobello Road merchants got their goods. That was still my destination for the day… eventually.

I spent only a few hours there, then walked on to Notting Hill Gate station. I boarded the Central Line service for Tottenham Court Road, intent on changing to the Northern Line there, but I found myself restless again and once more wandered to the surface. I wandered on foot yet again, and found myself in Trafalgar Square. I sat for a moment, then headed for Charing Cross, where once again I gave the Northern Line a miss. I took the Bakerloo line instead, and changed to the Circle Line at Baker Street. I surfaced yet again at Tower Hill and wandered on foot to Bank station, London’s notorious “Glass Gherkin” as my point of reference.

This restless wandering across the city continued nearly all day. I simply couldn’t, for the life of me, pluck up the courage to ride a Northern Line train out of some mortal dread of discovery.

At last I found myself at Leicester Square and, still unable to bring myself to board a Northern Line service, I boarded the Piccadilly service, changed at Holborn, and took the Central Line to St. Pauls.

A short walk away, in the shadow of the cathedral, was Ye Olde London. It was a favorite hangout for my friends and I, but currently none of my friends were about. I walked in and promptly ordered a pint of the stoutest concoction they could manage. It wasn’t like me to drink, and even less so out of nerves, but I had entered the pub with my knees about to buckle and wasn’t about to continue without a moment to relax.

Some moments later, feeling warmer and more confident, I made my way back to the station. I somehow managed to pull together my nerves enough to change at Bank, where I boarded a Northern Line service to High Barnet.

The dreaded phantom tube station never materialized, and I alighted at Camden Town. Following directions I had memorized the night before, I made my way toward the market. It was getting late; the sun was already low in the sky when I finally found myself in the midst of what had apparently been a massive stable complex. Now it was honeycombed with stalls of every item of every description.

The atmosphere was very inviting. It was far more relaxed than the frenetic rush of Portobello Road. I bought a cup of mulled wine, the perfect thing for a chilly early spring evening. I sipped it slowly as I walked around, getting a feel for where everything was. A delicious smell caught my attention, and before I could even think I’d bought a box of Thai noodles and a Pepsi.

I sat down on one of the many picnic tables outside the noodle stand. From a few yards away, lively music, its treble register nearly gone over the sound of a soft, warbling bass, could be heard from a stall that sold rare reggae records. Further away, thumping techno music echoed from a shop that sold rave and fetish wear. At the center of it all was a larger building, perhaps the old horse hospital itself, where shoppers came and went at very regular intervals. This was the central arcade, where the antiques were. I devoured what was left of the noodles, then made a bee line for the entrance.

At last, just a short distance within the central arcade, I found what I’d been looking for. A book vendor was there, with stalls of volumes that all looked very old and very interesting. One was an old Victorian latin textbook that had very pretty plate illustrations, but it was £30 and not in very good condition for that price. Another was a book showing the minutes of the Royal Archeological Society from 1933. I skimmed a few pages but it seemed more concerned with the society’s finances than anything their members had done in the field.

Then an older volume caught my attention. From the look of the spine, it had to have been very old. There was no discernible title on the tattered, crumbling leather of the book’s binding.

Gingerly, I slid it off the shelf and opened it. The binding felt surprisingly solid for its age and apparent wear. I turned to the book’s frontispiece, where the title stood in large letters:

Historia Naturae Mundi
Liber V
Marius Brunesis

The next page revealed it had been published in 1683, in Brussels.

Upon browsing I found it had a fair amount of text; over half of it was latin text of which I could read scant little. It was about midway through that I began to find illustrations. These were rich, intricate 17th century plates. The details were a mix of accuracy and fancy, and the creatures were often grossly inaccurate. One plate, showing a mix of animals from coastal forests, showed an obese badger with a foxlike tail which it labeled “Arakun.” Another plate showed a deer in exquisite detail, running from a “Crocodilis” that looked more like a medieval dragon.

Then there were the expected plates showing fanciful creatures. One showed a man with his face in the middle of his chest. Another showed a sort of dragon which it called “Leviathan Virginianis.” These fanciful creatures shared pride of place with real creatures such as weasels and opossums, arranged in some crude semblance of a habitat. A slight chill came over me as I remembered the wunderkammer in my mind’s eye, with its quaint blend of the natural and the preposterous.

There were many more pages of plates, but it was the last that nearly made my blood freeze. There, alone on the page, was a creature that looked something like a lion, something like a boar, and something like a heraldic wolf. Its maddened eyes were set deep into a crested head, and its porcine snout flared hideously from between a pair of daggerlike tusks. Its body was coated in coarse, wooly fur and its body was stout with legs that ended in reptilian claws. It stood alone on the page, with only a palm tree behind its haunches to frame any sort of sense of locality. But for that, the creature would have floated in space.

It was not the appearance of this creature that filled me with dread but the profound sense of unwanted familiarity that resonated from its visage. I very nearly threw the book on the floor, yet my eyes were fixed on this creature in horror.

At last I was able to turn my attention to the bottom of the page, expecting to find some identification. Instead, all I saw was this legend:

_Et circum civitas Carolus, viveunt bestia nerae. Non viveunt plus horribili in omnia terra ne infernum. _

“And near the city of Charles, there live black beasts. There live none more horrible in all of earth nor hell.” It took only a moment to digest the meaning of this legend; the grammar seemed a bit odd but easy enough to understand.

It was one particular phrase that had caught my attention, one which I had dwelled on for what seemed like hours.

“City of Charles?”

Charleston perhaps?

I closed the book, looking around the stalls in the arcade with a cold sweat running down my brow. I was breathing hard.

An old man in a wool cap looked at me with concern. “Tha looks a bit troubled, lad,” he said in a thick, old-time Yorkshire accent, the sort that one rarely hears any more.

I wiped my brow. “Something I ate,” I said. It was a weak excuse but it seemed less alarming than telling the truth.

“I saw thee over eatin’ them Thai noodles! I allus says to folks, that crazy oriental food’ll ruin thy sleep an’ give thee a fine case of the shits! When I were in Burma back in the war, I et sommat ’orrible wrapped in a bannaner leaf. Tasted right good, but it were naught but trouble.”

I let out a relieved chuckle. “I’ll be fine,” I said.

“Of course tha will, get thee a good plate o’ mooshy peas and tha’ll be good as new,” he said with a warm laugh, slapping me between the shoulders with surprising strength.

“So I see tha likes old books, eh? That’s one fine old one there! Tha’s a yoong man o’ taste, I’ll sell thee this ’un for ten bob,” he said.

Almost before I could consider it, I’d reached for the money belt I wore under my shirt and grabbed the £10 note kept securely between my passport and my debit card. In a flash it was done, we thanked each other politely, and I was off.

I wandered the rest of the market, but I had already spent my budget for the day and there was nothing more to be had. I felt drained, tired, and melancholy as I carried the book through the market in a second-hand Tesco grocery bag the old man had provided.

I made my way back to Camden Town tube station, wandered down the long flight of stairs to the platform, and slumped into the seat of the first southbound train that arrived.

I remember nothing more about that night. I awoke the next morning in my room with the book on the floor next to the bed, along with an empty Sprite bottle. I picked up the book, placed it reverently on the bookshelf next to my textbooks, then promptly forgot what I had seen within its pages. It was a sunday, and a nice one too. I went out to Richmond Park, the memory of the strange, paranoid state of mind I’d worked myself into the previous day fading to nothing as the day wore on.

Mario Bruno… Mario Bruno… Mario Bruno?

The name sounded familiar. I searched my memory… where did I know that name?

It was a peculiar stroke of luck that I’d come across it at all. I’d driven down to Charleston from my home in Conway, South Carolina about 98 miles away, and gone to the museum out of a sense of nostalgia. As a young boy I’d been to this museum often, I’d seen its exhibits many times, and nothing had really been added since I’d last been there around 1996. I didn’t mind; I was more or less alone that day and very relaxed.

I stood before a small, rather unassuming display of bird skeletons that had been more or less unchanged since this current iteration of the museum opened back in the 1970s. A small card had been placed next to the skeleton of the Carolina Parakeet that read:

This specimen, one of the first of the species to be catalogued, was originally gathered by Swiss biologist Mario Bruno in 1679 and was acquired by the museum as a gift from the Swiss Ornithological Institute in 1923.

I shrugged for a moment and continued on, unable to place the name for the time being.

Later that day, as I passed a rare book shop on King Street, I realized who this Mario Bruno was. Marius Brunesis! Of course, I even had one of his books!

The book had sat on a shelf in my father’s living room, along with some other books I’d bought in London, completely untouched for more than a year after I’d returned home. I couldn’t bear to touch it; not knowing what lay in that last print….

I suddenly felt sick, too sick to continue walking. I quickly shortened my walk and instead made my way back to the Battery where I’d parked my car, feeling the most intense nausea and dread I had felt in all my life.

As I sped across the Cooper River, the graceful span of the new bridge disappearing beneath me, I had thought I would escape that feeling of intense dread, but my stomach only lurched more. I made my way down highway 17 through Mount Pleasant, trying desperately to keep my eyes on the road, but I was nearly doubled over as my stomach roiled.

At last, I could take it no more. I pulled the car into the parking lot of a grocery store in Mt. Pleasant, opened the door, and vomited profusely. A few shoppers stared, stunned to see me leaning out of a battered sedan, clearly sick.

I leaned back in the seat, taking a deep breath and trying to relax, then promptly walked inside to buy some cola. I needed something to calm my stomach.

I didn’t even wait until I had paid for my drink before taking a swig. I’d had fully a quarter of it before I even reached the cash register. The cashier gave me an odd look, but said nothing as I paid for my purchase and made my way back to the car. I started the engine and left as quickly and calmly as I could; I didn’t want to make any more of a scene than I already had.

Later that evening, I sat in my room with my laptop, searching every online resource I knew for any sign of Mario Bruno.

Four hours of thoroughly searching by name, topic, and region failed to produce any leads. It was as if Mario Bruno had scarcely existed. What few articles I could find referenced him only briefly by name.

Perhaps the only decisive lead came from the English version of a website devoted to Swiss scientists run by the University of Bern. It mentioned him in fully three sentences:

“Mario Bruno was a 17th century naturalist who chronicled the flora and fauna of the known world. His work in North America was extensive, but cost him his life. Shortly after returning to Zurich from the Carolinas in 1680, Mario Bruno suffered a nervous breakdown and committed suicide.”

It was a strange footnote to a mysterious man. At the bottom of the web page was a link to another page with information on how to contact university faculty. I found the e-mail address of one of the professors of natural history and sent a brief message in fervent hope of learning more.

Fully a month later, I received only this brief reply:

Thank you for your interest in Mario Bruno. Unfortunately there is not much known about him or his work besides the published versions of his studies. His published works suggest there was nothing at all extraordinary about his work, though they did contain some lovely (and rare) illustrations by Guillaume Dumont. I contacted a colleague about Bruno who said that shortly before his suicide, he had left a disjointed note rambling about black beasts, but this was according to a biography written in 1934.

You are fortunate to have a copy of volume five of his Historia Naturae Mundi. I certainly think it’s one of the most exhaustive works of that era, even if it is full of the usual dragons and beast-men. Thank you for your question.


Prof. Gerard LaPointe

Black beasts? The trail was growing hot. I had a naturalist, who spoke in his book of black beasts near the “City of Charles.” I had documented evidence that he had, indeed, been near Charleston at some time. I had discovered that he had returned to Switzerland, mad with fright, and committed suicide leaving only a disjointed recollection of the black beast that had so terrified him.

And why, after seeing this print, that doubtless many others had seen too, was I the only one who seemed deathly afraid? What unfathomable connection did I have with this horrendous black beast of the Carolina swamps? The more I learned, the more questions I had.

In March 2007, the Catawba Pines Zoo closed its gates forever. The zoo’s owner, a Mr. Larry Causey, had committed suicide in the zoo’s office, holding a revolver to his temple and leaving only a rambling, incoherent suicide note that was in no way helpful to the investigation. Times had been hard, but the zoo had managed to remain profitable; his family, however, had no interest in the zoo and had it padlocked.

The Catawba Pines Zoo, situated off Highway 9 in the northernmost part of Horry County, SC, had first opened its gates in the summer of 1958. At the time, it was on par with any zoo in the state; Columbia’s more modern Riverbanks Zoo wouldn’t open for another decade.

The zoo had more than once fallen on hard times. In 1990, the zoo had gone into bankruptcy. The collection was dispersed among several animal rescue missions, each animal ill, weak, and underfed.

The zoo re-opened in 1994 with a new collection of animals, just after my family and I had moved to the small town of Conway, about 25 miles from the zoo.

I first overheard the news of the owner’s suicide while at the local library, from two women who sat discussing the local headlines in hushed whispers. The mention of the Catawba Pines Zoo shook me to the core; it brought back memories I had long forgotten.

I was ten years old in 1994, and had moved just in time to start fifth grade at a new school. The school year had scarcely begun when it was announced that our class would have a field trip to the zoo on Friday, September 9th.

The day of the field trip came, and we filed out of the bus, eager to see the newly-reopened and renovated zoo. For some of the children, it was their first time at a zoo of any sort; many of them had never left the town of Conway.

I had been to the much larger Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia myself, and had higher expectations of what a zoo should be. I was rather disappointed, as we began to tour the various exhibits, that all they had to offer was bored animals in tiny concrete boxes behind chain link fence. Some of the animals looked listless; some paced restlessly, and others raged furiously at the cages, trying with all their might to break out and take vengeance on their captors.

My classmates were more interested in the usual animals; big cats and monkeys seemed to be the most popular. I was more interested in the unusual animals. They had a raccoon dog there, an animal I had never even heard of until that time. One cage contained a rust-spotted genet, another an Owston’s palm civet. There were meerkats, fennec foxes, and all sorts of smaller African and Asian mammals that I found much more interesting than the lions and tigers my classmates fawned over.

Soon I found myself wandering away from the group, staying longer at different exhibits, until at last I had lost sight of them. It wasn’t a problem; I had a watch, I knew my classmates would be leaving around 3:30, and I knew where the parking lot was. I decided to tour the zoo at my own pace.

Before long, I’d found a chain link fence overgrown with kudzu. A large sign reading “Do Not Enter” was posted on it. Beyond, through gaps in the dense foliage of the kudzu, I could see a two-story building with a large billboard midway between the floors. It had the text “Wouldn’t You Like To Be A Pepper Too?” written plainly in white on a faded burgundy background. The top floor had wide glass windows on all sides, and the bottom floor had smaller windows and a door like one would see on a fast food restaurant. The door, of course, was chained shut and had been for many years.

Near this building, several rusted, faded carnival rides sat behind aluminum fences, and two or three empty cages sat. Concession stands and what appeared to be carnival games were there, boarded up, their signs removed and obscured with hasty smears of black paint.

Unlike the unpaved trails that ran through most of the zoo, this area was paved entirely with concrete, and where the concrete joined at the seams or cracked with age, grass nearly as tall as my shoulders shot up.

I turned around and looked back at the zoo. There were only two cages near me. In one enclosure, a few tired-looking arctic foxes sat, languishing in the southern heat. But further down, off toward the far corner of the zoo, another cage caught my eye.

I walked toward it. It was far removed from any of the others, and with no plaque identifying what was in it- if anything at all. The grass for perhaps 50 feet around it had gone uncut for several weeks, and the chain link enclosure- a crude attempt at a habitat- was overgrown on the inside.

I approached slowly, curious about this enclosure. What had been there? Why was it so far from all the other cages? Why was its construction so different from the concrete boxes most of the animals lived in?

As I got within a few short feet of the chain link, it became obvious that it would be impossible to see into the enclosure. The vegetation inside had grown so dense as to make me wonder just how long it had been since any creature or keeper had been inside. It was certainly more dense and more varied than anything I’d seen on the other side of the fence, leading me to believe that this cage had been empty- or abandoned- since long before the zoo last closed its doors.

There was a rustling of the vegetation, and I felt a distinct tinge of fear running through me. The fear welled up inside me as a low, hellish growl emanated from within the enclosure. The growl became a roar and reached a horrific crescendo as a flash of black fur and monstrous teeth burst through the vegetation, hitting the chain link with a force and fury that threatened to tear its way through.

All I remember from that point until the moment I sat down on the bus was the urge to run and a feeling of abject terror. I cannot adequately describe that terror in any clear way. It isn’t enough to scream, to cry, to verbalize anything in such a state. The body’s one and only answer is fight or flight, lashing out with all limbs senselessly until the danger has passed.

It was the memory of that sense of abject terror that sent me running from a public library in the same state of panic. For one brief moment, twelve and a half years of my life had been stripped away and I was a frightened ten-year-old once again, running to the same room I’d slept in the night after that fateful encounter.

As my senses returned to me later on, pouring myself a glass of iced tea and trying to ease my frayed nerves, I tried to consider what it was I had seen all those years ago. I dismissed the idea that I had seen the Black Beast that drove Mario Bruno to his death. Even if such a creature did exist, who would be able to capture one?

Reason seemed against it. Catawba Pines Zoo couldn’t possibly have such a creature. I reassured myself with that thought, and for a time I was content to think so.

In less than a week’s time, curiosity had gotten the better of me.

I spent more and more time at the library, pouring over local records, newspapers, and various deeds and documents on microfiche. The more I looked, the less convinced I was of reason having made its case.

The zoo’s original owner, Frederick Hardee, committed suicide in 1963 by throwing himself under a truck. He left no note, only a dictaphone recording in which he rambled incoherently about hexes and root doctors.

It had been taken over by his son Charlie, but was later beset by a string of tragedies. In 1971 the zookeeper walked into the lions’ pen and goaded them until they mauled him to death in front of a sizeable crowd of onlookers. In 1978 a concession stand worker from the zoo shot himself in front of the Gay Dolphin gift shop in Myrtle Beach. In 1980 a groundskeeper for the zoo suffered a mysterious seizure and died a few days later. In 1984 Charlie Hardee himself suffered a mental breakdown and spent the rest of his life in a psychiatric hospital.

The string of suicides, mental breakdowns, and inexplicable illnesses continued throughout the 1980’s and 90’s; in most cases, the victims only left behind baffling questions. Larry Causey’s suicide was only the most recent.

Then I found another microfiche reel, this one full of original documents kept by the county archives. It contained the original plans for the Catawba Pines Zoo from 1958, and for additions made in 1965 and 1977.

In every schematic, the layout changed slightly, but one strange thing stood out as consistent and disturbingly vague. In the corner where this mysterious enclosure lay, there was a region defined by hash marks and shaded in gray. It was clearly part of the property from the very beginning, and no indication was made as to what the shading actually meant; all I could discern was that somehow, for some reason, the mapmakers wanted nothing to do with it.

From my own computer, I examined a satellite photo of the zoo itself using an Internet-based map server. I discovered, much to my disappointment and confusion, that the satellite photo appeared to have a large area of digital noise right where the enclosure in question would have been.

I considered briefly taking a drive to the old zoo, breaking in and seeing for myself what was there. I could easily either scale the padlocked fence or, failing that, I had access to bolt cutters that would work handily against the hardened steel of most locks and chains. It would be so easy, so quick, I could do it that night if I brought my good flashlight…

I decided against it. I had more research to do before attempting something so risky. The first weekend of April 2007, I packed a few nights’ change of clothes and drove south on U.S. 17.

The old folks and story tellers in the South Carolina low country spin tales of a man they called Dr. Buzzard. He was a “root doctor,” a practitioner of black arts from ancient Africa, preserved in secret among the plantation slaves and kept alive in furtive practice even to the present day.

Most agree that at some time there was indeed a Dr. Buzzard, but the legend has long overshadowed the man.

There is no real agreement, among historians and folklorists, as to who Dr. Buzzard was, when he lived, when he died, and what his deeds were. The conflicting stories painted the original Dr. Buzzard as an outlaw, a respected community member, black, white, dead before 1930, or living well into the 1940s. Adding to the confusion, Dr. Buzzard had proteges and impostors, who each took the name Dr. Buzzard, and each of these proteges and impostors had successors. By the 1950’s, there were perhaps a hundred men who all claimed the legacy and the name of Dr. Buzzard.

To this, one might say, Dr. Buzzard is at once everywhere and yet nowhere. This quality was what first attracted me to his case when researching root doctors and hexes.

Whoever he was, one fact is known: the original Dr. Buzzard lived somewhere near Beaufort, SC.

That was where I arrived one weekend in April 2007. It was a Friday night, and I checked into the cheapest hotel I could find. As expected there was no refrigerator or microwave in the room, 3 channels on the decade-old TV set, and a strong smell of mildew.

I stretched out on the bed, feeling uneasy and more than a little sick to my stomach. I wrote it off as the chicken sandwich I’d eaten earlier that night, and turned off the light, hoping to get some rest for the long day ahead.

An intense feeling of terror ran through me. I jolted hard, kicking the bed and propelling myself against the headboard with a painful force. I was sweating, shivering, and my head was very sore. My vision was blurred and my mind foggy. I turned to see the alarm clock on the nightstand and saw only glowing lights, nearly causing me to scream. My eyes adjusted- or at least my mind adjusted to what my eyes were seeing- and I saw that it was 3:14 in the morning. Taking stock of my surroundings once again, I collapsed.

The rest of the night I slept well enough, save for having tossed and turned a great deal. I found the bedsheets in a heap on the floor near the foot of the bed.

I gathered my wallet and keys and made my way out to the car, driving about 5 miles down the road to a small museum run by Beaufort County. There were only a few small exhibits, mostly about the trade in cotton, rice, and seafood. As I’d expected, there was absolutely nothing about West African occult practices.

I asked an attendant, a young woman about my age, there if a curator or historian was in at the time.

She shook her head. “No, we don’t usually have anyone in during the weekends. Why? Is it anything we can help you with?” she said.

“Oh, probably not. I’m looking for information on root doctors, that’s all.”

“We have a few books on root doctors and hoodoo in the gift shop,” she said with a smile, trying to be helpful.

“Thank you, I’ll take a look in a moment,” I said, sincerely doubting the books had anything more than general information or legends.

In truth, I wasn’t just looking for information on root doctors but ultimately, I was looking for a root doctor. A real live practitioner of a dying art; one who might know the truth behind this beast.

My next stop was the local library in the city of Beaufort proper. I had an inkling that one of the librarians there would know a bit about the man they called Dr. Buzzard, or would be able to point me in the direction of some good firsthand source that was better than the usual ghost stories sold to tourists.

The first lead I got was a reference to a court case involving a Dr. Buzzard, who apparently ran afoul of the law quite often in old Beaufort. I was able to find contemporary newspaper accounts and find that his name was Stephaney or Stephney Robinson, a colorful figure known for wearing dark purple shades that hid his eyes and- allegedly- for having hexed his way in and out of trouble many times. By all accounts, Robinson died in 1947. This made him, most likely, a second-generation Dr. Buzzard.

This wasn’t entirely a dead end, however. For the first time I had a name and even, after more searching, a grainy newspaper photo of a second-generation protege of the most famous “root doctor” of them all.

I spent most of the rest of the day at that library, pouring over book and local newspaper articles, and left with very little more than I had come in with. Dr. Buzzard was proving elusive as ever, and as the library blinked its lights to signal ten minutes to closing time, I made my way to the door. I had a craving for good local seafood and I’d heard of a small place not far from the library.

A few hours later, after generous helpings of Frogmore Stew, hush puppies served with sweet cream butter, and all the sweet tea I could drink, I drove back to the hotel, where I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

The next day, I checked out of the hotel and made my way back to downtown Beaufort. I was going to ask at City Hall if there were any records or references to a man who went by the moniker Dr. Buzzard who died between 1920 and 1930.

The clerk at the Beaufort city hall, a woman of about 50 with an aquiline nose and permed hair, gave me the strangest look; I may as well have walked into the Roswell city hall and asked to shake hands with a space alien.

Finally, after I fabricated some lengthy and totally untrue story about doing research for a college paper about the persistence of West African traditions in the South Carolina Lowcountry, she pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and nodded.

“I’ll see what I can do for you,” she said, and went to talk to an associate.

The Beaufort City Hall proved to be a monumental disappointment. About the only thing I managed to come away with was a photocopy of the minutes from one of the younger Dr. Buzzard’s trials where it was mentioned that he was indeed a protege of “a most infamous hoodoo man of this county by the very same name.”

I left the city hall, about to walk to my car and try to think of at least one more place to continue my queries. As I got to the car, a man, about 50 years old, broad-shouldered, the dark skin of his bald head glistening in the late afternoon heat approached me. He was wearing a purple button-up shirt and immaculately-creased khaki pants.

“I heard you were looking for a root doctor,” he said to me. Before I could answer, he’d handed me a small post-it note and walked away at a brisk pace.

843 159 8791

I was taken aback by the furtiveness of the encounter, and wondered if it was really a good idea to call someone who could only be contacted this way. I had come this far, hadn’t I? I reached into my pocket for my phone and dialed the number, hoping this wasn’t the biggest mistake of my life.

In our initial conversation, I was grilled on what my business was. After reassuring Lady Jane that all I was serious about a consultation, I was told to drive to an isolated spot about 30 miles north of Beaufort, an abandoned service station along a nameless road just off U.S. 17, and wait.

I called home to say I would be late, took my copy of Historia Naturae Mundi out of the glove compartment, then sat on the trunk of my car, watching the sparse traffic speeding by.

I was met by the same tall, stern-faced man who had approached me in the parking lot earlier that afternoon. He was driving a well-kept early 70’s Cadillac limousine painted its original metallic mustard yellow. He nodded, opened the back door, and I got in, sinking into the upholstery of the vast rear seat.

The sun had begun to go low in the sky by this point. The car drove another half hour, down increasingly narrow roads, the last 5 miles of which meandered down a narrow coquina track. The scenery alternated between dense coastal forests draped with Spanish moss and causeways through wide, sweeping marshlands. A herd of deer scampered out of the way as the car slowly rounded a bend in a very densely forested area.

There, an old house sat, perhaps 100 years old, well-kept but showing its age. All throughout the yard, strange charms lay strewn about or hanging from the trees. Pits could be seen all over the yard where small objects had been buried. The house’s wide, screened-in porch was hung all over with various roots and plants.

The driver of the car nodded, and I got out, walking toward the front door of the house, pulling open the screen door, then knocking on the front door.

In only a moment, the door opened. “Come in,” a voice said.

The living room was warm and well-lit, furnished with older couches, tables, and lamps from the 70’s or so, but not at all threatening or hung with roots and mystic charms.

“Come on in and sit down, I’ll be with you real soon,” a full-figured black woman in her early 50s said. She wore her hair piled high on her head in moussed waves, large gold hoop earrings in her ears, dark mauve eyeshadow the only makeup on her serene features. I knew in an instant this was Lady Jane.

The woman had gone into the kitchen with the man who drove the car, and they were discussing something.

Just then, an ancient woman came in, looking me over suspiciously. She was darker-complected than Lady Jane, her face furrowed, her silver hair pulled back, and a loose flower print dress draped over her thin but robust form.

“Janie!” she shouted. “Mek dis buckruh be round yuh so?”

Early 20th-century Gullah? This was a true barrier island home… but it seemed I might not be welcome.

Lady Jane walked back into the room. “Mama, it’s alright," she said. “Don’t mind mama, it’s just her way,” she said to me.

“You say ‘e ain’ gwine do nufin? De buckruh, he long eye,” the older woman said, then turned to me. “Lissun yuh, chile, don’ yo head leab you! Dis yuh house be clean, be fuh de root work. Ain’ no foolishness be had round yuh.”

“Calm down, mama. Why don’t you go sit down somewhere?” Lady Jane said, trying to keep her cool while escorting her mother out of the room. She returned to the living room.

“I’m sorry, my mama gets all paranoid when there’s white folks about. It ain’t nothing, it’s just her generation.” I shook my head. “No, it’s alright,” I said.

“So what can I do for you? A fine young fellow like you… Let me guess, you’re looking for a love potion?” she said with a warm smile. I chuckled.

“Not today. I’m here because I have some really strange questions and you might be the only one who can answer them."

I told her practically everything I knew to that point, the entire story starting that day in 1994. I told what I knew about the beast, and about the history of the zoo. I showed her the illustration in Historia Naturae Mundi. I told about the dream I’d had, about the mention of root doctors, of the madness that so many had suffered. Throughout the whole thing, Lady Jane nodded patiently, listening to every word.

“I really don’t know what to say,” she finally said. “I learned all I know from my mama, and she learned it all from Dr. Buzzard himself. She might know more about this than I do.”

As if on cue, her mother walked into the room. “You done seen de debil, chile,” she said to me in a low voice. “He ain’ be de debil dey tell ‘bout in de sunday schoo’. He oldah dan dat. He oldah dan Adam and Ebe. He a haunt o’ dis ol’ earf, an’ he been ’round since de firs day clean.”

“The devil in hoodoo’s different,” Lady Jane explained. “He can be good or evil, he lives in the earth, he’s an earth spirit.”

“Dis Catawba pine, dey long eye, dey put him ‘way fawty yeahs pas’ sho, nuf. I been known dat dis ol’ worl can’ be right widdout de debil, so I tell de buckruh wuh has him to be free him. He don’ be lissen. So I put dat stuff on him, and sho’ nuff, he die,” the older woman said.

Lady Jane must have sensed I had a hard time understanding her mother. “Mama says the Catawba Pines zoo had the devil forty years ago, and she tried to tell the man there to let him go, but they didn’t listen, so she put the stuff on them,” she explained.

“Put the stuff?” I said.

“She did rootwork, a jinx,” Jane replied.

“So that was you? You were the one who hexed Frederick Hardee and the Catawba Pines zoo?” I said, looking at her incredulously.

“I be sorruh fo’ dat ‘til muh dyin day,” she said. “But uh on’y done wuh de worl’ need. Dat man an’ him kin, dey put dat on deyselfs de day he took de debil fo’ his own.”

I realized there was more at play here than just another horrible creature. This was an order far older and more sacred to those who knew it than I could have ever imagined, an order that called for blood vengeance when it was violated. The owner of the Catawba Pines Zoo, and everyone who worked for him, had been swept up in something that they could not have possibly comprehended, and now lay cold in the earth for a trespass they never understood.

“What can I do, then?” I said, sure at this point that my knowledge of these things had been forced upon me for some reason that I could not yet comprehend.

Lady Jane just looked at me, pausing for a moment. “You need to go to that zoo and set him free,” she said, matter-of-factly.

“But the zoo closed last month, he couldn’t possibly be there still,” I said.

“Den you go dere to de place where alluh crittahs is took, an’ you let ‘im loose dere!” her mother chimed in. “Else yo’ head gwine leab you an’ you sho’ nuff gwine die.”

There was no sense in arguing. Part of me was still screaming about how absurd this was, but the better part of me knew the score. I had been selected to break into a zoo and free an earth spirit from a cage. How simple was that?

Lady Jane’s mother pulled out a small coin purse from a drawer in one of the end tables next to the couch, reached in, and handed me a coin. “You gwine need dis,” she said.

I looked it over, and my eyes went wide. There in the palm of my hand stood the figure of Liberty striding boldly forward, the rays of the rising sun going in all directions around her. Beside her was stamped a date of 1917… and all this in pure gold. It was a $20 gold piece, probably worth a small fortune.

“What’s this for?” I asked.

“You’ll know when the time comes,” Lady Jane said. “Anything else I can help you with?”

“No, not really. So how much do I owe you?” I replied, realizing in light of the $20 gold piece in my pocket this was a stupid question.

“Unless you’re gonna buy a charm, I guess you don’t owe me,” she replied with a shrug.

I thanked her, we said our goodbyes, and within a few minutes I was being driven back to the main highway.

It was about 3:30 in the morning when I finally arrived home, exhausted. The entire evening had a dreamlike quality, and I had begun to doubt that anything I had just experienced was real until I started to empty my pockets and undress for the night. Out of the pocket of my jeans the $20 gold piece tumbled. I picked it up, eying it. It was real. Every moment of this was real.

That night, I slept a deep, dreamless sleep… the first I’d had in many a month.

It wasn’t until the first weekend of May that I finally got up the courage to venture into the former Catawba Pines zoo. It was past midnight, and as I drove along the quarter-mile coquina driveway to the parking lot and entrance, my heart was in my throat.

Here I faced the better part of thirteen years of repressed horrors that I had sworn many times to deny. More than that, I was facing the summary deconstruction of the truth as I knew it, and the hammer to smash the orb had been planted firmly in my hands to swing.

The car’s tires crunched as coquina gave way to the gravel of the parking lot. I switched off the car and got out, retrieving a heavy pair of bolt cutters, a machete, and a pair of gardener’s gloves from the trunk. I crawled through a hole in the fence near the gate and made my entrance without leaving a trace.

The trees within the park seemed taller and fuller than they had twelve and a half years before. In the moonlight, sweeping live oak branches draped in Spanish moss stood out thick and full, framing the starry sky above me. All around, vague shapes of buildings and cages stood, strung along the remnants of the dirt path that wound between them. For the most part, I was disoriented; it had been too long, and although I could find the spot perfectly on every diagram of the zoo I had examined, every sense of bearing melted away as I stood once again viewing the complex from ground level.

I realized that the cage I was looking for was so close to the far end of the zoo that I could simply follow the fence until I saw the abandoned amusement park. I made my way back to the fence where I had entered, and began to follow it around its inside edge.

I found nothing; the fence had been cleared of kudzu years before, and I couldn’t find a single gate. I made my way nearly all the way around the perimeter without encountering anything familiar; I had to double back.

It was as I was just over halfway back, toward the rear of the complex, that I noticed something. There was a clearing near this part of the zoo, while the rest of the park had many old-growth trees. There were no carnival rides left, and the cracked pavement had been replaced with careful landscaping, but one of the few remaining buildings finally caught my attention. It was a two-story building with a door like a restaurant.

That part of the zoo had been renovated after all, and the dividing fence I had once peered through had been removed years before. I was beginning to think that the cage and its creature were long gone, but getting my bearings once again I headed for a cage I had just passed moments before.

For a moment I began to doubt that anything was there. Reason said if they had an animal so rare and unusual, they would have taken it along with the rest of the collection. Reason said no creature should have survived all this time alone in a cage.

Reason took a lethal blow as a pair of glowing red eyes glared at me from deep in the night. A deep bass growl emanated from within the chain link cage, a growl that seemed to make the very air around me quiver.

A wave of indescribable terror swept over me. I was rooted to my position, my knees shook, and I could scarcely move. I tried to speak, but nothing came out.

“I’m here to help you,” I wanted to say, but all I could manage was the hoarse croak of a man trying in vain to awake from a night terror.

At last, some strange part of me pressed forward, walking around the cage, looking for its door. The creature stalked around its cage, following me. What had I done to deserve this? I had seen this behavior only once before… in hungry tigers.

At last, I came to the door, my chest tightening and my breath coming in short, wheezing gasps. I felt faint. Every breath became ineffective, and I staggered to my knees. I began to cough violently, barely able to breathe for more than a minute.

My face was bright red as I recovered from the fit, pulled myself up, and raised the heavy bolt cutters to the rusted padlock that held the cage shut. It took very little effort; a metallic ping rang out into the night and the lock fell away, hitting the soft grass with a thump.

I had expected the creature to come bursting out of its cage to devour me, but it hadn’t. It nosed the door open, then gingerly stepped out, looking around. I backed away, keeping my distance, unsure of what it would do

It then looked straight at me, and stood up on its hind legs, its body shifting subtly in form to support a bipedal stance. Its face became gradually more human, though it was still covered head to toe in jet black fur, so deep and perfect black that it stood out even against the darkness, the ambient light from the moon seemingly sucked in with the brutal force of a neutron star.

It strode toward me, then looked me over. I struggled for something to say.

“Who are you?” I finally asked. It looked at me with a peculiar leer, its tongue darting out for a moment.

“Who are you?” I repeated, this time with more urgency.

The creature then held out his hand. That was when I knew….

I reached into my pocket, where the $20 gold piece still sat. Since the day the elderly root doctor had given me this coin, I had carried it everywhere. I reached in, and handed the coin to this creature.

“Who am I? I am one of a very old race,” he said in perfect English, in a deep but melodious voice. “We are not of this earth, but long upon it. My brothers and I have walked this earth since before the first sprigs of green came forth. We will walk this earth long after the last sprigs of green have died. The name of our race is not important; my brothers and I have been given many names by man; Devil, Krampus, Popobawa… and in the far corners of the earth I have more brothers whom human eyes have never beheld. Ask to know anything from any of us, pay your coin, and we will tell all.”

“Then what will happen to us? The humans, I mean,” I asked.

“In good time, man will devour man,” he said matter-of-factly. “It is consummation. The day the first man stood, he anticipated his fall.”

The response was so grim and yet so vague. I felt as if I would scream in frustration, but I held my composure.

“Then why are you here?” I asked. “What do you do?”

The creature leered at me. “Wait for me at any crossroads, pay your coin, and I will tell all.”

With that, a pair of batlike wings shot from his back where none had apparently been before. He began to flap them restlessly, not quite ready to fly away. He turned and started in the direction of the front gate. Just then I realized I had one last question, and I hoped he would answer it this time.

“Wait!” I shouted. He turned. “Why would you be willing to tell me any of this?”

With that, his features twisted into the most horrifying grin I had ever beheld. “If an ant came to you and asked how one of your atom bombs worked, you would probably tell him, wouldn’t you?”

I never took the creature’s offer to learn more; I had tasted the last of the great mysteries and had no appetite for more. There will be no meeting the devil at the crossroads for me; I will leave that to the brave and the foolish.

Just a short time after, at the end of June 2007, I left South Carolina and have not returned except to visit briefly.

Life awaits me, enjoyments, discoveries, friends and pleasures abound. Damn the words of the beast; I live for the sake of living, banishing all thought of the bleak future of the human race from my mind as the prime of my life unfolds before me. I am drunk on life and lost in the stupor of my ignorant self-satisfaction… but I have not forgotten.

Wherever I go, whatever I do, I cannot escape this. My innocence has been stained; for as little as I know from my brush with the dark mysteries that lurk in the shadows, I know far too much.

How long before someone dares to ask more? So long as these creatures walk the earth and carry with them all their mysteries, there will be a day when someone will ask of that wisdom. In time our race will learn of their race, and speak their terrible name. That day, as the beast himself said, man will devour man.

Of this, I am sure.

Bête Noir


Beaverton, United States

  • Artist

Artist's Description

A college student from South Carolina discovers a book in an antique market in London.

What follows plunges him deep into discoveries of the past- not just his own past, but the past history of the South Carolina Lowcountry, and ultimately, the darkest depths of unwritten time itself.

What is the Black Beast that lurks in the swamps near Charleston, South Carolina?

desktop tablet-landscape content-width tablet-portrait workstream-4-across phone-landscape phone-portrait
desktop tablet-landscape content-width tablet-portrait workstream-4-across phone-landscape phone-portrait

10% off

for joining the Redbubble mailing list

Receive exclusive deals and awesome artist news and content right to your inbox. Free for your convenience.