VOLUSIA COUNTY, Florida
28.96° N, 81.23° W
The hotel lounge, lit by daylight on first arrival, is now, after midnight, foreboding with shadows layered upon shadows. Despite our apprehension, the warmth within these walls is a welcome contrast to the previous hours spent in the damp autumnal wilderness. My cell phone, normally reliable, has lost all charge. So too my flashlight batteries: fresh out of the package, they are now drained. What’s the time?, I ask. Jack, the geriatric biker in leathers and denim, responds with a gravelly voice, saying, my watch has stopped, but I’d guess it’s a quarter-past witch’s tit. Having expended his oxygen, Jack begins to wheeze as he pulls a flask of blended-scotch loose from an interior pocket. Beyond Jack is Bob Rizzo, our wide-eyed leader; his thousand-yard stare settled on a coffee stain in the carpet. Bob’s wife whispers into his ear, her words furrow his brow. Refocused, bewildered Bob addresses the group, asking, is everyone accounted for? We dozen turn our heads either way, searching shadows, finding those of us who are not missing. We once were thirteen; someone is not here. I am the first to speak, Scorpitaria, I say. Scorpitaria? Bob’s brow heightens as he searches the room for the absent psychic. With a sense of dread, 24 eyes turn towards the front doors of the hotel. Someone has to go look for her. I’ll go, I say, smacking my flashlight in the palm of my hand. It flickers and dies. Anyone have a working torch?
We initially gathered here at 6pm. I was a stranger, a guest participant in a paranormal investigation of the high strangeness in the woods surrounding the town of Cassadaga, Florida. I arrived at the rendezvous point early and went straight for the lounge. The young woman behind bar was sun-freckled and pretty; I’m surprised to find her in this backwater with Daytona Beach a half-hour hitchhike away. Take a seat, she instructed, but my mind perversely misinterpreted her words as, “tickle my feet.” I smiled, telling her, sure, if that is what you’re into. She gave me a quizzical frown and a laminated menu. I ordered an Old Fashioned. As I sipped my cocktail, Bob Rizzo approached to introduce himself as the founder of OOPS (Orlando Organization of Paranormal Specialists). We shook hands. It could be a long night, he prophesied. Nodding at my whiskey glass, Bob Rizzo, with minimal passive aggressiveness, said to me, we try to go in clear-headed. I lifted the cocktail, telling Bob, clearing the cobwebs is my primary goal.
As dusk settled, we thirteen gathered in the lobby to be briefed on the mission. This is when I met Jack, the retired railroader from somewhere far Northeast of here. He looked vaudevillian with his mustache and the way he rubbed his hands together, massaging his arthritis. He had Knight’s Templar rings on his fingers and rosy-cross tattoos sneaking up his sleeve. Jack stood tall, even hunched-over as his back hadn’t unclenched from a motorcycle ride which began long before I was born. Done this before, he asked of me? I responded, done what? Commune with the dead in the woods? Sure, just another lonely Saturday night.
Gear-up and let’s head-out, Bob Rizzo told the troupe. Some dude approximately my age wearing the officially-licensed OOPS baseball cap, approached and introduced himself as Robbie Rizzo, aka Rob Bob’s Son. He sized me up, asking, what are you carrying? He had a spare electromagnetic frequency reader to loan me, if needed. I didn’t need. I was carrying copper dowsing rods. Old school, Rob Bob’s Son nodded with approval.
Cassadaga exists in a depressed sleepy hollow under a canopy of live oak. The town is not on the path to anywhere; there is no thru traffic, those who arrive do so intentionally. A century and a half ago, the town was founded as Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp and is to this day a retirement village for palm readers, crystal healers, necromancers and everything in-between. Cassadaga bills itself as the “psychic capital of the world”. The town and those who reside here, alive or dead, were not our concern tonight. This OOPS investigation team was leaving the confines of what was currently civilized for the wild beyond, to the site of a former tuberculosis hospital for children, a building which burned down ninety years ago (per local legend, though I have found no actual proof of its existence). We were going to conduct a séance, commune with trapped spirits, collect data and, if the opportunity presented itself, guide ghosts out of limbo and towards the light… if you believe in that kind of thing. Of course, the only thing I believed in was that pretty bartender’s ability to pour a stiff drink.
The Central Florida pine scrub can be nearly impassable, ideal habitat for ticks, feral hogs and rattlesnakes, but not bipedal pedestrian ghost hunters. Under this oak canopy, however, there were clear openings to allow for our journey. With the slightest sliver of silver moon shining through the foliage, the sandy trails were illuminated enough for me to conserve my flashlight’s energy, following the path with only the night-vision allowed via my bloated pupils.
Deep into the woods became deeper; we were well-distanced from Cassadaga when we arrived at the alleged site of the children’s hospital. There were few signs of the former building, most of the area overgrown with palm thicket. We mustn’t have been the only ones who considered this ground to be cursed: scattered around the site were altars, black candles, pentagrams carved into trees or chalk-drawn on rocks, charred dolls and decorative figurines made of sticks & bird bones. Bob Rizzo let out a sigh, saying to us, there are some real sickos out there, people who prey on the weak, whose dark souls feed off of evil. Let’s have a prayer and clean this up. Fucking Satanists, Jack cursed and spat at the dirt. Rob Bob’s Son lifted his rosary beads and led us in prayer. Not tonight, Satan. We cleared much of the unholy shit littering the area before beginning our séance.
Many crowded around Bob and his wife, Marie, one of the few psychic mediums employed by OOPS. There were only a few amongst us who could look beyond the veil, like Marie. Most of the team was composed of investigators who relied on devices to measure changes in the environment: technology which could capture light anomalies, sound phenomena, electromagnetic spikes or infrared temperature readings. We huddled together, shining lights and our cameras on the same spot. It was a crowd. I took a few steps back and explored the edge of the clearing.
Away from the commotion of the investigation team, I savored the peaceful chaos of the forest: ear catching the breeze, nostrils flinching at nearby carrion, eyes finding form out of darkness… until the darkness moved. Fuck off!, I hissed, hopping backwards as something materialized before me. She spoke and her velvety words shivered my bowels. I knew you’d be here, she said. The fuck?, I inquired. Shh, she shushed. It was Scorpitaria, one of the OOPS psychic mediums. She was unnerving; my nervous system would have literally been shat out had my sphincter not been made of sterner stuff. In the loose sand, Scorpitaria stood beneath 5’ in height, had jet-black hair, cleopatra-caked make-up, yellow eyes and was bosomy, flatulent, indistinguishably-aged. She appeared to be of Arabic or Persian origins, perhaps a true Egyptian Gypsy.
Why are you not a part of the investigation, I asked her, motioning to Bob Rizzo’s undertaking. Scorpitaria said, there is more here than the ghosts of burned-up TB babies. Do you not feel it, she asked, standing close enough to me I could track the pulse of her beating heart through the breast she pressed against my belly. I feel nothing, I lied to her. Scorpitaria tsk’d me, taking a step back before insisting I take out my equipment. There is a presence here, she insisted. I unleashed my dowsing rods, tools for water-witching, used for centuries by my Nevermen ancestors for the purpose of well-digging. I held out my rods and spoke to the spiritual realm around me, explaining the rules as Scorpitaria looked on. I am going to ask a series of questions, I informed anything listening from the spiritual plane. If the answer is yes, cross my rods. If the answer is no, make the rods part. Is there a spirit present?
It’s a neat circus trick. A proper charlatan could bring these rods to a party and blow the minds of lesser intellects with a little sleight of hand and twitch of wrist. I’ve always been skeptical of the practicality of dowsing rods, but they make for an interesting conversation piece. Here tonight, in the woods of Central Florida, I held my hands steady; there was no need for charlatan tricks, no need to impress. Yet the copper rods crossed on their own. Oh! The independent movement of the rods startled me. Scorpitaria asked, why are you surprised? What is it?, I asked her, curious as to what cross-breeze or ghost could have tilted my rods. Something old, she said staring into the brush, saying further, a native of this land.
Greetings, spirit. I know the drill. I know how these things were supposed to go. I know the questions to ask. Did I believe there was a long dead Native American spirit in the ether around me? Nah, not really. But I’m game for an experiment. When did you live? Was it a hundred years ago? Two hundred years ago? Three hundred years ago? More than three hundred years ago? My dowsing rods then crossed. I ask of the spirit, were you Seminole? Timucua? No hits. Were you visited by Spaniards? Scorpitaria answers for our ghost, saying, he doesn’t know what that means. Did you see any pale faces? They would have been wearing shiny hats, rode horses and their dicks were dripping with syphilis. Explain, Scorpitaria urged me. Explain syphilis? Explain horses, she clarified. Horses are tall ponies, I said. No response from our old friend. I ask him, what about panthers? Did you ever see a panther? Scorpitaria shook her head, he doesn’t know what that is. Explain what a panther is to him. Okay, I said. Have you ever seen a really big kitty cat? The rods crossed. A hit! Which… fine. How does our friend understand kitty cat but doesn’t understand what a panther is? Why do you doubt him, Scorpitaria asked, scoldingly.
I continued a litany of questions, but received fewer responses. He is no longer interested in you, Scorpitaria said. She laughed, he wants to know if I am your woman. I bent my wrists outward to force the dowsing rods to swing far apart: hell no. Scorpitaria began shaking her head, no, no, no now you are just being rude. Who, me? Not you, she said to me, him. What is he telling you? Scorpitaria said, he’s asking me things a gentleman would never ask a lady. What lady?, I thought and quickly regretted it. That’s the trouble with psychics, you can’t trust them to not pick the lock on your brain. Maybe she’s telling the truth and our native spirit has a thing for creepy levantine chicks. Shit!, I probably shouldn’t have allowed myself that thought either. Fucking psychics and their mind-reading proclivity!
I decided to continue to my interview. Okay Friend, how did you die? Was it alligators? Small pox? Ritual sacrifice? I asked, but my rods were unmoved. Ask about the horse, Scorpitaria said to me. Well, shit, if he had a horse, there must have been Spaniards around. Scorpitaria tsk’d me, shaking her head, not everything in your histories is true.
I was growing bored with Scorpitaria and her spirit paramour when I heard Bob Rizzo, our lead investigator, yell authoritatively into the darkness, is there someone out there? Show yourself! Bob Rizzo and the larger contingent of OOPS appeared startled and defensive. Something was wrong. I waved Scorpitaria to follow me back to the group.
The fuck?, I asked Jack. There’s something in the woods, the old biker told me. Who is there?, Bob Rizzo yelled at the forest line. In the other direction, behind Bob, came a crash of broken tree limbs. Jack at my side, coughed into his fist before saying, we’re surrounded. Who’s there?, Bob asked again, pointing his flashlight, only for that light to suddenly die out. You should know, Bob Rizzo yelled out, we are protected by Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Jack grumbled beside me. He explained to me, privately, quietly, Christ protects us on the celestial plane, but if we’re dealing with human malfeasance, our only protection against their fist is our fist, blade against blade, bullet against bullet. The fuck?, I asked Jack. Before Jack could say any more, there was a crash in the woods in a new direction. Over here!, Rob Bob’s Son yelled. He shined his flashlight, but it was weak and quickly dimmed. I rushed to him, what did you see? People running around, Rob Bob’s Son said. They’re holding sticks in the air. No!, Jack said, those are antler crowns. These motherfuckers are some older-than-sin pagan motherfuckers, Jack declared. Green-Men. I asked of Jack, better to be dealing with pagans than Satanists, though, right? Fuck no, Jack said. Give me half a dozen zit-faced diabolicals over Green-Man adherents any day of the fucking week. Except Tuesday.
No. This is dumb. We’re half a mile removed from paved road, no one is going to wander all the way out here to pester us, except for bored redneck teenagers. I told Rob Bob’s Son, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be intimidated. We give them a show of force. I led the way by stomping on palmetto brush, shouting curses and challenges at whichever dark menace was out there. I’m going to tear out your fucking spleen and feed it to Jack, I yelled at the dark nothing. More crashes in the trees. Deciding to amp things up, I roared at the night. Not any fake white-boy rar!, but an inhuman guttural roar I learned from children I met in a village along the Amazon River who taught me how to mimic howler monkeys. Blowing out air in a typical growl can be interesting, but you sound no more frightening than a soccer hooligan. To inhale air as a roar, that shit can be downright freaky. I left Rob Bob’s Son to rush the treeline, stomping low brush, creating a fuss, and howling like a hell-monkey. Whatever devil-horned diabolicals were running around, or actual deer with antlers, they had no idea what the fuck I was. And the forest went quiet.
The scattered people of OOPS, the Orlando Organization of Paranormal Specialists, regathered and we began the trek back to Cassadaga Hotel. Bob Rizzo directed his investigators to train their cameras into the woods. I do not know, he said to them, if we are dealing with the spiritual realm or something altogether more human, but either way, it is downright evil. Stick tight and let’s get home. Fair enough, but it was Jack I was worried about. He and I lagged behind as he caught his wind. I do not know if it was the fright of perceived attack or the semi-strenuous hike along these soft-earth trails, but the old man was becoming increasingly feeble.
There are those, Jack wheezed to me. This is a land of older gods we know nothing of, Jack said as we paused. Save your breath, old man, I said to him. There are those who learn the old ways, Jack wheezed, who exist between realities. Jack took a swig from his flask. Part-man, part-beast, supernaturally connected to the land, slipping in and out… Yeah, I nodded, give me a sip, Jack.
We were the last to arrive, but Old Jack and I made it back to Hotel Cassadaga rejoin Bob Rizzo and the rest, who were sharing stories and pictures, trying to come to conclusions over what we had collectively experienced. We caught our breath. We warmed ourselves in the interior shadows of the hotel. And then we realized Scorpitaria was missing. I volunteered to go back into the woods to look for her.
After no further volunteers, Bob Rizzo anoints Robbie, Rob Bob’s Son, my brother in Christ, as my commanding officer, sending us out after Scorpitaria with a pat on the back. I realize this could take all night. Scorpitaria might be the most eccentrically dressed out of our group, but beneath the Spanish moss, she could be hidden away anywhere along the path we trekked. Or taken afar, to whichever lair her Satanist or pagan abductors might have. How long should we search? How long do we kick through the palmettos before calling the Volusia County Sheriff, hello 9-11, we were just communing with dead children spirits in the woods when we were attacked by pagan deer people and our favorite psychic medium resembling Elizabeth Taylor’s chubby stunt-double, but on meth, was absconded with, perhaps by a Native American spirit and/or woodland ghouls. Please send the helicopter and bring in the K-9s. Who wants to make this call?
As Rob Bob’s Son and I leave the warm of the hotel, regret fills my thoughts as I wish I had commandeered Jack’s whisky flask. Rob Bob’s Son and I hike a quarter mile before darkness begins to shift before us. Fuck! Shit!, we jump backwards, our flashlights empty of flash and light. There is a voice and this time I am less unnerved when I hear her say, I knew you’d be here.
We found her. But it smells like Rob Bob’s Son shat out his nerves.