The only time Jessi ever stayed over at my house, it was for a whole weekend. It was actually the only time I ever had a friend stay the night. Jessi was seven and I was almost. Her parents were out of town; her father was one of Daddy’s business associates; she was my best friend; and so Daddy allowed her to stay.
Our house was almost a hundred years old. It was once a farm house before Great Falls expanded to an actual blip on the map. We had the only two-story in our neighborhood. It didn’t have a cool attic like Jessi’s house, but it held its share of wonders for a couple of soon-to-be second graders, ranging from Mrs. Whitaker’s peach tree, to the turtles in Ferris Creek.
Jessi, being of irrepressible imagination and a thirst for adventure, insisted the Allegiance of Super Spy Girls explore the vast underground caverns of unspeakable horror known to my parents as… the basement. By basement, I don’t mean our storm cellar. The basement was a deep crawl space underneath the house with a dirt floor and a musty smell. There was room enough that an adult only had to duck at the main floor supports, and dark enough to be properly spooky.
A hundred years of junk had been left along its floor in seemingly haphazard array. Daddy never bothered to clean it out when he bought the place. There were a few old mechanical contraptions, probably relics of interest to someone who knew what they were. To us, they were evil robots, long vanquished in a graveyard of cobwebs and dust. Prior members of the Allegiance had probably defeated them defending the planet.
“Hey! What the Hell are you girls doing down there?” I heard Daddy’s voice call through the floor of his study.
Our eyes went wide. His footsteps stomped across the floor above us and before we had a chance to get over the shock, he was at the cubby entrance we’d climbed through.
“Get out of there,” he barked. “You girls don’t wanna get bit by the squonk do you?”
Jessi and I climbed back out. That might have been what was best about having Jessi over. I would never get a whipping in front of company.
“What’s a squonk?” I asked.
“People go huntin’ for them, I think,” Jessi said.
Daddy frowned at us. “Hogwash!” he corrected. “You can’t hunt for squonks. No one’s ever caught a squonk huntin’ for one. You gotta trap ’em.”
“There’s squonks under our house?”
“Just the one big one,” he said. “Squonks are the ugliest creatures alive. They’re so deathly afraid of bein’ seen they even hide from each other, so you never see more than one of ’em. Now, stay out from under the house before you get bit!”
That was going to happen. He turned back toward the porch. We watched him back into the house, and as soon as he was out of sight, I scowled at Jessi.
“The squonk can’t be that big,” I said. “We would have seen it.”
“Shh!” she whispered, with a finger to her lips.
A minute later, we were climbing back through the cubby. Huddled against each other for safety, we explorrd the dark corners of the basement again on tiptoes. Unfortunately, even the Spy Girls’ skills of robot dominance could not turn up a squonk in that basement.
“Daddy said we had to trap it,” I reminded.
“I got an idea, “Jessi answered.
Back near the basement entrance, a couple of old metal milk crates were among the other junk discarded by residents past. We turned one upside-down and propped it up on a piece of wood laying near by. A metal gear from one of the vanquished robots seemed sure to weigh it down enough to hold any squonk. We stood proudly over our trap.
“It needs bait,” I whispered. “So the squonk will go under.”
“What do you think they eat?” Jessi asked.
I looked around the basement dubiously. “Prolly cookies?”
Everyone and everything eats cookies, although I seem to recall my goldfish didn’t eat very much else afterward. Jessi agreed, and a couple of minutes later we were trying to explain ourselves in the kitchen.
“What do you want cookies for?” Mama asked. “It’s not even lunchtime yet.”
“Shhhhh!” I made my don’t-let-Daddy-hear face. “They’re not for us. They’re for the squonk.”
Mama folded her arms across her chest.
“We made a trap,” Jessi said proudly, “but it needs bait.”
“We have to catch the squonk or it’s gonna bite us,” I added.
Mama looked back and forth between us and then glanced in the direction of the study. Her eyes narrowed to slits of discerning suspicion. After a moment, the conquest of squonks was determined valiant enough to defy the Evil Baron of the Study, and the squonk hunters were sent on their way, with cookies in hand.
We checked the trap several times over the course of the day and long about supper, Mama asked us about it in secrecy. She informed us, in her wise ways, that traps probably need to be left alone in order to be effective. So we left it alone. After supper, I asked Daddy to tell us more about the squonk. Daddy put down his reading, and Jessi and I sat listening with great excitement.
“Well, I’ve never actually seen it,” Daddy began. “But legend says, the squonk – Lacrimacorpus dissolvens, I believe – is a creature too hideous to behold. His entire body is covered in wrinkled skin and furry warts, and he has gnarly, twisted fangs that stick out of his ugly face. He’s so ugly, he can’t stand the thought of being seen, even by other squonks as I said, so he spends his entire life in solitude.”
“What’s solitude?” I asked.
“That means bein’ alone,” Jessi whispered.
Daddy nodded. “Bein’ alone… and bein’ so ugly, makes the squonk real sad. So sad, it’s believed he’s literally made out of tears. He spends his entire lifetime cryin’, but without makin’ a sound, so it doesn’t give away his hidin’ place.”
“Is that what Mama means by cryin’ ugly?”
“It might be,” he answered thoughtfully. “Anyway, a squonk leaves a trail of tears everywhere it goes, on account of its constant crying. The tears are easier to see at night because they glow in moonlight.”
“Can we see ’em now?” I asked excitedly.
Daddy looked at us fiercely. “You girls can stay away from that basement like I told you! You hear?”
We both nodded, wide-eyed, obediently, and innocently.
“Whether the squonk is really made out of tears, or whether it’s somethin’ else that just washes away, when they reach the end of their lives, they simply disappear. Those who’ve seen it, say they dissolve in their very own tears.”
Daddy picked up his reading again.
“Maybe they’re made of sugar, like the Wicked Witch of the West,” Jessi said, as we headed off to play.
“Flower Anne!” Daddy called after us. “Don’t let me catch you in that basement again!”
Of course we were up late into the night giggling about the nasty, furry, wrinkly, little fanged creatures that had it in for our ankles. Planning how we could get it from the trap without being bitten. Feeling sorry for the squonk for being so sad. Wondering if you could keep one as a pet. Finally, we fell asleep.
Morning found us waking up far later than our plans to check the trap at the crack of dawn had called for. We crept downstairs quietly. Mama was in the kitchen fixing breakfast and Daddy was nowhere to be seen. We sneaked outside and straight to the basement cubby looking for squonk trails along the way.
When we got to the cubby, there was an awful noise coming from under the house. Jessi and I looked at each other in wild-eyed alarm. We climbed through the cubby and down under the house, and clutching each others’ arms in uncontainable excitement, we tiptoed around to where we could see the trap. It was sprung! Something black was fighting furiously to get out, and then it stopped and two shiny eyes stared at us in the dark from inside the trap.
“Daddy!'” I shrieked. “Daddy!” We scrambled back out of the basement and raced into the house as fast as we could. “Daddy! We caught the squonk! We caught the squonk!”
Daddy was still nowhere to be found and Mama came out to see what all our ruckus was about.
“Where’s Daddy? He has to come! We caught the squonk!”
“He’s not gonna be happy about you goin’ back in that basement,” she said.
“But we caught the squonk!”
“We did, Mrs. Schilde,” Jessi urged. “We caught it! It’s black and it’s ugly, just like Mr. Schilde said!”
“Your father went out a little bit ago to fetch a hen from Carlson’s for supper. Let’s go see what we can find.”
Mama turned off the stove and fetched a flashlight. The three of us went back out to the cubby, where the basement was now quiet.
“I don’t hear anythin’,” Mama said.
“Maybe it’s just tired,” Jessi suggested.
Mama clicked on the flashlight and we went down into the basement. Jessi and I hid behind Mama, clinging to her skirt as we led her around to where she could see the trap had been sprung. “Well, I’ll be,” she said in mock surprise. She shone the light on the trap, but it was empty now.
We let go of Mama’s skirt and went cautiously over to the trap. Jessi pulled the rusty gear off the top of it and I lifted it up slowly, but there was nothing in it anymore. Jessi and I stood with our mouths hung open. All that remained was a big puddle, shining under Mama’s flashlight. The squonk had dissolved in its own tears, just like Daddy said!
© 2013 Anne Schilde