The thing was about a foot tall, terra-cotta brown. It had huge, round Orphan Annie-type eyes and a big, open-mouthed grin, its tongue lolling out. It sat back on its haunches, as though it were expecting me to do something specific. What was it? Where had it come from? And for the love of God, what was it doing in my dresser?
(A home full of ghosts)
I was an imaginative, superstitious and somewhat nervous child. Shrinks say that this sort of combination often accompanies childhood insecurity; I suppose that makes some sense, as my family life was pretty troubled.
I spent my childhood in a house full of ghosts. It was a creepy home, old and large—not quite a mansion, but there were plenty of rooms filled with plenty of weird secrets. Our creaky attic, filled with strange musty things, must have housed hundreds of wicked creatures, flitting about in the gloom, just out of sight. Our huge old trees tapped the roof or lightly scratched their bony fingers along the windows. My parents were often absent, leaving me alone in the big home full of spectres. Voices would waft in through the vents, or a chair would be moved across the floor in another room. Something chittered and chattered in the living room. I closed the doors and curled up, skin crawling, almost enjoying the fantastic terrors that crept down the hallway next to my room.
Objects could, of course, come to life and move about on their own, motivated by sinister, unknowable urges. My elderly aunts collected toys and dolls and their home was full of curiosities: from realistic baby dolls to little rag dolls, some presumably from exotic locales. They had jack-in-the-boxes with weird and hideous faces that would pop up and blow little minds. But the goblins were everywhere—even scary books and movies could come true in my big, gloomy home near the lake.
(A fire for Christmas)
The fire came during one of the coldest winters that Dallas had seen in a long time—around Christmas, 1975. It consumed a corner of my father's room and covered every square inch of our big old home with soot and the smell of burnt bedding. We had to move to an apartment for over a month while the house was made habitable again.
While the workmen brought our home back to normal, we moved to the suburb of Richardson. When I was a child, places which were outside my experience seemed like the ends of the earth. For the last fifteen years, I have lived in Richardson, about a mile from that strange apartment, but at the time it was bewilderingly remote from anything I knew. That freezing winter, we tried to get on with our lives.
In my eleven years on the planet, I had never lived anywhere but my haunted home for any real length of time. So it was weird—really weird. Instead of a four bedroom house, we had a two bedroom apartment. I brought the essentials, books, typewriter (I was thinking about writing a novel about a giant shark at the time—any resemblance to Jaws was purely due to lack of creativity on my part!), and some clothing. My mom put my things away while I went to pick more up from the house with my father. After my bath, I asked her where my pajamas were. She replied that she had put them in the chest of drawers.
So I opened the top drawer—socks and underwear, second drawer—books, third drawer—empty... Then, I opened the bottom drawer. A grotesque countenance out of my worst, most Night Gallery nightmares greeted me.
It was deep brown; its pupil-less eyes far too big for its face and its bestial mouth was open, tongue lolling out in an insane, open-mouthed grin. My skin went cold. I felt a frisson run through my body—you know that moment in a movie when they rack focus and the background seems to close in on the person on screen? It felt a lot like that.
Mustering courage, I picked up the abominable little thing in trembling hands, afraid to death that it might move or make a sound. I tried not to look at it, but its evil visage fascinated me. Its skin looked like stoneware but it was nearly as light as a feather, made of fiberglass or plastic, and this enhanced the strange, unearthly quality of this weird little monster. I wandered in a daze into the adjacent bedroom, where my mother read the National Enquirer in bed. I asked her what this thing was, but she had no idea.
People have always been fascinated with grotesque images—never more than in the 1970s*. Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's slavering, bug-eyed cartoon monsters adorned vans all over the United States, Wacky Packages trading cards took familiar product brands and parodied them in bizarre (and sometimes unsettling) twists, and in the pages of Mad Magazine, Don Martin's hilarious cartoons featured comically twisted people with bulbous noses and outrageous shoes. Less innocently, R. Crumb illustrated the pages of Zap Comix with gnomish, drooling perverts and gigantically-endowed floozies. Freakies cereal featured a cast of twisted characters as its spokesmonsters and creepy clowns and cymbal-playing monkey toys were the orders of the day.
(In the closet)
The next day, I showed the thing to my sister and brother-in-law. Despite his usually straight laced demeanor, he managed a "God damn!" when he saw the little statue.
We stowed the hideous little creature deep in the relative safety of mother's closet, out of direct line of sight. We covered its ugly head with a towel. Every now and then, Mother or Dad would uncover the thing, either intentionally or on accident ... who knows? My imagination had the horrid little creature shaking the towel off while we slept, or creeping out from under it to watch me in my fitful sleep, chortling at the thought that it held a starring role in my nightmares. When I passed Mother's closet, I always looked in, sometimes those soulless little eyes would meet mine, the terrifying visage leering at me from the gloom—the frisson again.
It was a piggybank—or more precisely, a hyena bank: its back had a slot for money, and nearby was the brand name "Zookeepers." Many years later, I saw a nature special about hyenas. When the light catches the eyes of these nocturnal scavengers, they shine like a cat's eyes. This explains the Orphan Annie eyes. Nothing explains why someone made this horror movie prop, nor why someone put it in the drawer of my room.
Of course, I could have thrown it away. I could have weighted it down and thrown it in a lake or tossed it from a high place and watched it shatter into a million pieces. I could have even taken a hammer to the little monster that was infesting my dreams, but I was too savvy a kid for that. This is what happens in horror flicks: they dispose of the creepy object, expecting that is the end of it. When they return home, it is waiting for them in some unexpected place—under the bed (or in the bed), in the fridge or maybe right back in the closet. Or one wakes up with mysterious little hyena bites on his legs in the middle of the night, or hears strange hyena laughter from the vents or the drains. No—the only way to get rid of this thing was to put it right back where I'd found it.
(The return home)
In time, we moved out of the little apartment and back to our newly-cleaned home. As we were packing up, I saw the man who was helping us, carrying out a big basket full of our things—on top was the Zookeeper. I snatched up the hideous brown monster and returned him to the spot where I had found him. "Stay there." I said as I slid the drawer closed, with great ceremony. One last glimpse of those empty eyes and he was forever gone from my life.
That was the end of the zookeeper. But he still skulked around my dreams, visiting my nightmares and lurking in the corners of my mind when I would try to get to sleep. That hollow gaze would once again fall upon me and my blood would turn to ice water. One time, I dreamed that I was in a store that had the entire line of Zookeepers banks: there were vultures, piranhas and, of course, my little friend the hyena.
I've never found any evidence of this character again. Now, with Internet technology, I have searched, looked on eBay, talked on forums...but no one has ever seen a zookeeper, almost as if the one hideous little hyena that was sitting in that drawer was the only one in the world. I will never know what became of him.
Perhaps that is for the best.
*Reader is cheerfully invited to insert his or her own joke here. Good starting points include: the Osmonds, Sonny and Cher, or Telly Savales.
This piece of real-life horror was brought to you by Junkill's weird past in honour of It's the Season for Graves Cracking: The 2006 Quest for Fear
Special thanks to Dooks, whose brilliantly creepy writeup Trigger partially inspired this writeup!