blackbirdonline journalFall 2022  Vol. 21  No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Field Report on “The Lizard Man”

The legend of the Jersey Devil, also called the Leeds Devil, began in the 1700s, on a stretch of Atlantic coast so hostile to agriculture that early European settlers christened it the Barrens. No surprise that Mother Leeds, a poor woman with twelve children, felt it was a curse to be fruitful in a place like this. Fed up, she cursed back. If a thirteenth child were to come, she swore, the Devil could have it. When the inevitable baby was born, goat-horned and cloven-hoofed, it grew wings and flew out the window to terrorize the Pine Barrens.

My mom grew up hearing this story in Atlantic City, not far from the Pine Barrens, and I grew up hearing it from her in South Carolina. In fact, my middle name is Leeds, a family name from her side.

When Blackbird published “The Lizard Man,” my story about Jeremy and Wendy, a husband-and-wife team of amateur cryptozoologists in pursuit of a seven-foot-tall reptilian humanoid that lives in the Carolina swamps, I was thrilled. But the piece didn’t let go of me after it was published. I realized it was the start of a novel.

The novel would follow Jeremy and Wendy into new landscapes, their troubled marriage fueling a cross-country investigation including not just the Lizard Man, but other cryptids, too, as they try to recapture the romance of their early relationship. I needed more chapters. More settings. More cryptids, which I should probably state for the record I don’t believe in, fascinated as I am by them.

Imagination and secondary research could only take me so far. I knew I’d need to visit the settings in order to render them right on the page. “The Lizard Man” grew out of the Carolina swamps I spent my teen years exploring. If I wanted my characters to listen for the cries of the witch-bird La Lechuza or snowshoe in the footprints of a Wendigo, I’d need to see the desert of Southwest Texas and the Northwoods of Wisconsin for myself. It became part of my writing process, letting the landscapes open up the narrative in new and unexpected ways.

Where Jeremy and Wendy went, I followed. A U.S. Navy Bombing Range located in the middle of Ocala National Forest upped the stakes of a Skunk Ape investigation to disastrous consequences. A swinging bridge crossing a swift, icy river in the Northwoods of Wisconsin became an opportunity to show the growing divide between my characters. Blackwater scuba diving offered an unexpected redemption, of sorts. In each new wilderness, I hiked and camped, scouting the trails that my characters traveled.

I’m especially thankful to Blackbird for awarding “The Lizard Man” the Rebecca Mitchell Tarumoto Short Fiction Prize. The Tarumoto prize funded my first research trips until I was able to secure additional funding.

Two years after “The Lizard Man” appeared in Blackbird, I was driving up to Jersey on a research trip when my phone buzzed with texts from family. Could I visit the churchyard where my grandmother was buried and place seven stones, one for each of her kids, on the grave?

I asked for the address. I wasn’t expecting the church to be in the tiny town of Leeds Point, not a quarter mile from where the Jersey Devil was allegedly born.

Suspicious, I called an aunt, the family expert on our history.

“Honey,” she said, “we are the devil family. We’re those Leeds.”

“I just assumed you knew like everyone else,” my mom said when I called her. “Anyway, don’t worry about the Jersey Devil while you’re up there. We have devil blood, so you’re protected.”

I placed seven rocks at my grandmother’s grave and found an oyster shack for lunch. Trying on my newly-discovered heritage, I told the waitress I was a Leeds. She stepped back, eying me with distrust.

Driving for miles around Wharton State Forest, I took notes on the turkey, deer, huckleberries, and burnt pitch pine forests that later appeared in my book as I tried to capture the landscape.

These days, “The Lizard Man” is in the middle of a fourth rewrite. Without the encouragement and generosity of Blackbird, I might never have traveled to Fouke, Arkansas, lair of the Boggy Creek Monster, a notoriously aggressive Bigfoot. Or camped out in the Ozark Mountains, land of the Ozark Howler. Or had a stand-off with a black bear while pursuing the witch-bird La Lechuza in Big Bend, Texas. Every trip, a new monster: Humboldt County, California, where the famous Patterson-Gimlin film was shot in 1967, capturing the best-known footage of Bigfoot. Northern Arizona’s Painted Desert, home to skinwalkers, terrifying Navajo shape-shifting witches. And last summer, Montana, territory of the Shunka Warakin, a wolf-like beast known to kill livestock. A taxidermy specimen shot in 1886 is displayed at the Madison Valley History Museum, for what it’s worth.

My trips completed, I immersed myself in every landscape that my characters visit in order to anchor the fantastical in the natural world until, as my character Wendy says, “Things you know aren’t real, suddenly are.”  

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