The range of the squonk is very limited.
—William T. Cox, Fearsome Creatures of
The woods were my sanctuary, my cathedral, and goodness knows I needed a refuge that spring. Every day brought more bad news: the hottest April on record, the worst flooding since Hurricane Agnes, unprecedented tree die-offs. A forest ranger could only do so much by herself, and by late May I couldn’t stomach another overtime shift. I took my weary bones and heavy heart to the cabin.
Friday night found me curled up on the porch swing with a mug of hot tea, listening to robins settling in for the night. Their calls should have soothed me. That’s why I’d come. Instead, I was jittery, almost spilling my tea. I’d driven past a new clear-cut, courtesy of an imminent new pipeline, and the ugly scar through the trees wouldn’t leave my mind. Protests and legal manoeuvrings hadn’t stopped it, and frustration skittered through my veins. I was so tired. Then, from the shadows between oak and maple, came the sound of weeping.
It was pitiful. A soft keening like someone whose heart was breaking. The sound brought with it the memory of everyone and everything I’d ever loved and lost. I slapped a hand over my mouth before a sob could emerge. My throat felt hot and narrow.
There was no room for fear amid the grief. Yes, I was a young woman alone in a cabin in the middle of the woods. No one should have been out there, certainly no one close enough for me to witness their mourning. But that weeping sounded heartbreaking, not threatening.
More than that, it felt natural, organic, as if it had grown among these trees.
With that thought, the pieces fell into place. The squonk. Of course.
I grabbed my sneakers and shoved them on as quietly as I could while hurrying off the porch. If you’re not from Pennsylvania, you may never have heard of the squonk. I first heard of them here in this cabin. My grandmother spoke of them over chamomile tea and raisin cookies. Pity the squonk, she said. They’re gentle, shy creatures of the forest. Creatures of twilight, dusk, and dawn. Creatures so ugly they hide and weep out of shame over their own ugliness.
Even as a six-year-old, obsessed with birds and beetles, I knew that didn’t make sense. Cryptid or not, no species collectively thinks it’s ugly. Somewhere, a female squonk thought a male squonk was quite the catch. Otherwise, they would have gone extinct. Weeping must be their natural sound, which, as usual, we humans misunderstood.
They have always been a rare sight, even among the lumberjacks in the 1800s who first reported them. Still, that elusiveness rankled. Even though I was Pennsylvania born and bred, even though I had been a birdwatcher since age five, and even though I’d worked for the local forest district my entire professional life and logged more hours in the field than some of my older colleagues, I have never seen a squonk. I shouldn’t have taken it personally.
I shouldn’t, but I did. This time, I would see one.
The weeping came through soft and clear through the trees. I was in luck.
I tramped west, toward the state road, before I realized the sound came from more to the north. I paused, reoriented myself. I followed the noise, keeping my footfalls soft.
It was a good night to be out. The rain had stopped, and moonlight filtered through the young leaves. The forest remained awake as the night settled in, birds winging to their roosts, frogs calling for love. I trod on damp mayapples and fading trout lilies, the mud thick underfoot. Even where branches blocked the moonlight, I wasn’t afraid in these woods. I’d walked them many times before. This was my family’s land. It knew me, and I knew it. I only feared spooking the elusive squonk.
I stepped wrong on a fallen branch. It cracked underfoot, too loud.
I froze. I held my breath.
As the crack faded, the forest stayed quiet. Too quiet. The weeping had stopped.
Dang it. The squonk was as skittish as I’d been told.
There was nothing to do but wait and hope. My body was tired, my soul, too, yet I never once thought to head home. Sighting the squonk would do more to feed my soul than another couple hours in bed. I could wait. I held myself still, breathing shallowly, and sent up a prayer to whatever would listen.
Slowly, softly, frogs took up their love songs. A mockingbird called. I waited. I hoped.
There. Soft and unmistakable, a muted, pitiful keening.
Back to the west. But now I, too, became wary and skittish. I trod more slowly and carefully. I took out my phone, engaged its red light so I wouldn’t ruin my night vision, and recorded thirty seconds of the weeping. With luck, the squonk would respond to a playback of its call, like some birds did. With luck, it would come to me instead of me having to go to it.
I hit “play” and sent my recording into the night.
The weeping stopped, leaving only the artificial sobs.
Double dang it. Another wrong move. I stopped the playback.
But before I could despair, the weeping resumed. Closer. Louder.
I inched forward, careful where I placed my feet, and there in front of me stood a squat, four-legged beast, sobbing at the edge of the new clear-cut.
I stopped, gazing at it, digging my fingers into my thigh to convince myself that I really was seeing it.
To be clear, the clear-cut was the uglier of the two things: a scar of tree stumps and churned-up ground devoid of life, an abomination by way of a future natural gas pipeline. In comparison, the squonk was almost cute. It had the homeliness of a naked mole rat, with wrinkly, ill-fitting skin that looked oversized.
Not cute like a panda, but nothing to cry over. I would take it home for a pet, if it were in an animal rescue.
The squonk wept softly, and as I watched, bathed in the joy of a new sighting, it struck me again that this squonk could not be weeping over its own ugliness. There was no pool of still water or mirror in sight. Neither did it act like a creature calling for love. It wasn’t strutting or advertising a possible nest site.
No, there was something more subtle going on. As I stood and watched, I realized its gaze was fixed as firmly on the travesty of the clear-cut as my gaze was fixed on the wonder of a squonk.
I’m a scientist. I deal in data, measurements, and replicable results. Despite that, looking at the squonk, I knew without a doubt, in the mammalian center of my gut, that the squonk grieved the cutting of the forest. That’s what it was weeping over.
Now my grandmother’s story made sense. The clear-cut explained why the lumberjacks who decimated the Pennsylvania forests heard the squonk when no one else did. Why they assumed it wept over its own ugliness. Those lumberjacks were projecting the ugly work they did onto the humble squonk.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered.
The squonk spun to face me. Tears glittered in its eyes.
I expected it to run. It didn’t. Its gaze met mine. It held the sadness of everyone and everything that could be lost.
I wept, too, and went and sat beside it. We sat in tearful solidarity. The two of us, weeping for what had been done to these forests, what was being done, and what would soon be done.
“I’m doing my best to stop it,” I said. “I’m just one person. I can only do my small part. But I’ll keep trying. I won’t stop.”
At my words, the squonk bent its head. Its snout touched my knee. An acknowledgement, a benediction.
It turned, no longer weeping, into the forest. It slipped between the mayapples and was gone. I sat a long time in the silence, fingering my phone with the recording. Maybe, just maybe, since the squonk was so rare, this recording would be enough to stop the pipeline. I rose to my feet, ready to continue the good fight.
Copyright © 2023 Kathryn Yelinek
Kathryn Yelinek lives in Pennsylvania, where she works as a librarian. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Deep Magic, Metaphorosis, Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She has a fondness for retold fairy tales, hopepunk, and happily ever after. When her nose isn’t buried in a book, she's frequently found talking to birds or gazing at the stars.