In Writing, We Get to Be Bolder, Riskier, and More Foolish
Like Following a Mysterious Whistle into a Canyon in the Dead of Night
I was living in Topanga Canyon, nestled in the mountains just north of Los Angeles. It’s a rural, isolated area, crisscrossed by hiking trails and menaced by summer wildfires. Renowned as the residence of aging hippies, in the past decade there had been an influx of free spirited young families who raised goats and chickens and homeschooled their unvaccinated kids, children named Huckleberry and Junebug, in houses ranging from the dilapidated to the apologetically luxurious. My only experience with Topanga before moving there was buying a Groupon for a local “horse class” for my then-eight-year-old daughter.
I’d assumed “riding” had accidentally been left out of the offer language, but when I pulled into the dusty old ranch, my daughter and I were shepherded to a yurt, where we were told she was going to learn to spiritually connect with horses. On the wall were paintings of various horses, and my daughter pointed to one with sparkling white wings. “I painted that one myself. That horse flew here from Canada,” the instructor announced, burying the lede. For the next hour and a half, I watched my daughter hop inside of a corral waving a wand at a listless, sleepy-eyed mare while being assured by the instructor “Silver Girl is dancing inside!”
These vaguely mystical games seemed like harmless fun, until the night before we moved there and my LA friend and neighbor warned me Topanga could be dangerous. “Yeah,” I said. “We know all about the wildfires. We’ll be careful.”
“There’s also coyotes,” Paul said. “Hawks. Mountain lions. They’ll come right up on your property.”
“I grew up with wild animals,” I said. Like most people, I’d embellished my childhood, making it sound more primal than it had been. The Massachusetts woods behind my house had been decidedly G-rated, home to birds, rabbits, deer, chipmunks, and the occasional skunk. I might as well have flung myself into a bed full of stuffed animals for all the danger I’d encountered.
“There are also Creekers,” Paul said.
“Creekers?” I said.
“Homeless nomads who live in the woods down by Topanga creek. A band of them rove around.”
“That’s not real,” I said.
“Don’t listen to him,” his wife said. “He’s making it up.”
“I’m not. I don’t know if they’re still around, but they used to be a thing.”
Then we started talking about movies, discussing Denzel Washington’s charismatic longevity, and we moved on to the future of pastries, and whether a cronut was just a kind of donut, until, without realizing it, I forgot about the Creekers.
For a while.
Six months later, on the first day of school, coyotes killed our dogs. We’d grown lax about accompanying the dogs outside since they never tried to go more than a few yards away, and the coyotes lived in a den somewhere far off in the distance, out of sight, but this morning the dogs went out earlier than usual, and the coyotes must have been hunting at that hour.
Coyotes trick dogs by sending out a member of the pack to act friendly—if the dog is a male, they send a female coyote—luring the unsuspecting dog far away, and then the rest of the pack emerges from hiding and attacks en masse. I don’t know if that happened with our two dogs, but somehow they ended up hundreds of feet away from our front door, where they were swiftly attacked and killed. It left my children in tears, and me with a burning sensation of guilt and anger, as if I’d swallowed a coal ember, and it were smoldering in my chest.
Until the death of our dogs, I’d found the unchecked, rugged isolation of Topanga appealing. When rattlesnakes slithered onto our driveway, we’d call our neighbor, who would come by with his motocross-loving son and the two of them would calmly use a long pole to maneuver the jangling snake into a bucket and carry it off to relocate it. I paced alongside a tarantula as it strutted down the middle of the road, its burly, hairy arms out like a stevedore’s. One morning a mountain lion barreled past our mailbox and I waved and said, “Hey,” as if we were buddies. In general, I’d acted with the undiscerning senselessness of a tourist, blind to danger.
A few weeks after the coyotes killed our dogs, I was upstairs in the bedroom reading when I heard a noise from downstairs. My wife looked up from her phone and asked me if I’d left the TV on. I shook my head.
“What’s that sound then?”
“Yeah. It’s really annoying.”
Now that she mentioned it, the whistling was irritating. It was the same perky riff, over and over, a kind of descending scale: Dee-dee, dee-dee, dee-dee, dun.
“It’s probably just Leah.”
Our Greek au pair, Leah, was a sardonic, black-haired anarchist whose Skype handle was “Corrupting Angel.” I’d rarely heard Leah say anything in a non-sarcastic tone, let alone whistle cheerfully, yet who else could it be? Our kids, asleep for hours, didn’t even knew how to whistle. Maybe Leah had found a way to whistle ironically.
I went downstairs to find her. All the lights were off, the entire floor dark. I knocked on Leah’s bedroom door. No answer.
“It’s not her. She’s asleep,” I told my wife when I returned.
A few minutes later, the whistling started again.
Dee-dee, dee-dee, dee-dee, dun.
“Oh come on,” my wife said, flinging aside her phone. She surged out of bed, only to stop short.
“What?” I said.
“It’s not coming from downstairs,” she said. “Listen. It’s coming from outside.”
I followed her to the window. She was right. I could hear the eerie melody drifting across our back yard.
“You should go check it out,” she said.
“Seriously? This is how every horror movie starts—a mysterious noise, someone goes to check it out, and they get gruesomely killed.”
“You’re a black belt.”
“You can’t side kick a ghost.”
On the day we’d moved in, the neighbor kids had raced into our kitchen and breathlessly told us that two children had died in the house, both succumbing to congenital illnesses within a year of each other. It was a heartbreaking story—and one never shared by the realtor. Apparently you only have to disclose deaths to buyers, whereas renters are free to be possessed by mournful whistling ghost children.
“Fine,” my wife said, and grabbed a pair of jeans from a chair. “If you won’t go check it out, I will.”
“Hang on.” The line between wisdom and cowardice is blurry, but clearly I had crossed it. “I’ll go,” I said. “I’ll take care of it.”
I got dressed, looped the sheath of my hunting knife to my belt, and palmed the mini penlight I used as a book light.
Outside, it was cool for a September night. There was no moon in the sky. I stood by the small pond in the back yard to let my eyes adjust to the darkness. It was a huge property, crisscrossed by coyotes and mountain lions and rattlesnakes and now, apparently, a shadowy whistler. The bullfrogs, briefly silenced by my presence, began croaking again.
So did the whistler.
Dee-dee, dee-dee, dee-dee, dun.
It sounded like it was coming from the top of our driveway, where it intersected with the main road. I switched on the penlight and headed in that direction. Probably just some neighbor walking their dog, I reasoned. But when I got to the end of the driveway, the road was empty. I craned my neck, trying to see as far down the road as the little flashlight beam would reach.
Dee-dee, dee-dee, dee-dee, dun.
Now the whistling sounded like it was coming from behind the house. I couldn’t tell if the wind was making it hard to locate, or if the source of the whistling was moving around. I walked back down the long driveway and turned left, where it branched off toward the studio. The studio was a small, narrow building on the back of the property used by previous tenants as an art workshop and, before that, to repair motorcycles. When I flashed my penlight at the building, the red paint on the door blazed back at me. We never locked the studio because there was nothing of value inside.
Which meant someone could be in there right now.
I unsheathed my hunting knife with my right hand and with my left I reached for the doorknob. Gripping the penlight between my teeth, I shoved open the door and swiveled my head back and forth quickly, searching for movement. I saw flashes of spider webs, gray chains suspended from the ceiling, oil stains and paint splashes on the cement floor. Tentatively, I reached inside and switched on the light. A skinny fluorescent bulb flickered and buzzed above me, sending shadows into the empty corners.
Dee-dee, dee-dee, dee-dee, dun.
I spun around. The whistling was the loudest I’d heard it. Now it was coming from behind me, and no more than a hundred feet away.
I flipped off the light and backed out of the studio, shutting the door and then turning off the penlight, not wanting to give away my position. In the moonless dark, I tiptoed toward the edge of the long winding driveway, where a wall of tall, forbidding cactus plants served as a border to the hill that led down to the creek. When I’d kick the soccer ball around with my son on the driveway, it would sometimes fly over the cactuses, and I’d have to step gingerly past the northernmost cactus and clamber down the steep hill where, along the dry creek bed, I’d find deflated balls, Frisbees, and other toys that had been abandoned by their owners, either because retrieval had seemed too wearying or else, perhaps, too dangerous.
Dee-dee, dee-dee, dee-dee, dun.
I switched the knife to my left hand and rubbed my right palm against my pant leg to dry the sweat, then gripped it again. It was a nine-inch hunting knife with a four and a half inch blade that might go right through a ghost but would handily gut a person. Because whatever was down there in the creek waiting for me, I was now sure, was no ghost. It was a person.
I stepped silently to the edge of the hill and crouched, preparing to descend to the creek.
Suddenly, an image of one of our dogs, freshly slaughtered by coyotes, lying on its side with its bloody ribs exposed, flashed into my mind. It occurred to me, with a dizzy sense of recognition, that I was being steadily lured away from the house just as our dogs had been. If I were writing this as a story, I thought to myself, this would be the hapless realization the protagonist makes at the instant of his death, as he’s bleeding out in the dry creek bed.
What the hell am I doing? I asked myself in alarm, jarred back to my senses. Was I really about to climb down a hill to confront some unidentified maniac? He probably had a gun; he’d shoot me on sight. What if he had friends with him? What if they all had guns? Even if I did survive this battle royale scenario somehow, what would I tell the police? I heard some whistling so I went down to the creek . . . for what? To chat?
I backed away from the edge of the hill. Hurrying along the dark driveway, I could hear the whistling grow fainter. I locked the kitchen door behind me, checked to make sure all of the other doors and windows in the house were locked, then told my wife to go to bed. I would sleep on the downstairs couch that night in case anyone tried to break in.
Nothing else happened that night, or the following night, or the night after that. The whistling went away, and I was left with what we’re all left with, the events themselves, and the story we build from them.
My story, though, was not a good story. It lacked a climax. It was all set up and no pay off. It bugged me. I made a terrible protagonist. Sure, I’d had a burst of recklessness and stupidity, but at exactly the moment when a story needed recklessness the most, I resorted to reason. If this were a story I was telling a friend, they would have groaned in disbelief, “Wait, you stopped? You didn’t go down the hill?” It would lack the very thing good stories need: a commitment to go where the action takes you, danger be damned. Backing away from the abyss is sensible, but makes for a dull protagonist, and even duller storytelling.
I tried to work out how many writers I knew who would have climbed down that hill. As a writer and editor for over 20 years, I’ve known hundreds of writers; and regardless of the genres they write in, almost none of them are swashbucklers. I remembered Flaubert’s advice, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work,” and felt that I was not alone in my timidity. Perhaps storytelling is a form of escapism not just for readers, but for writers as well. On the page, we get to be bolder, riskier, and more foolish. We can shrug off morality, flirt with catastrophe, and descend into dark creeks. When the night rises, we can stare it down, dismissing the future’s distressing threats, because we won’t be there when it happens. That’s what our characters are for, to suffer and dance and do battle for us.