The first time I heard the Willamette Wail with my own ears, I was sitting in my kayak just north of St. Johns. It was a sunny day in 1962, and it would be the last time I'd see my brothers Eli and Frank alive.
We dropped in at Cathedral Park early that morning. Probably around seven, as was our tradition. The plan was to head north toward the Columbia and hook up with some friends camping on Hayden Island.
But as we approached the Sauvie Island fork, My brother Eli, to our surprise, took the Multnomah Channel, not the shorter, more direct passage to the Columbia.
What was he doing, I wondered? Eli always forged ahead of us, so by the time Frank and I reached the fork , he was well out of shouting distance. Perplexed, we pursued our brother, wondering if he'd gotten confused or, worse, wanted to circumnavigate the whole of Sauvie Island, which would add hours to what should have been a short trip.
By the time we finally caught up with Eli, he was beyond Hadley’s Landing. We were surrounded by woods on either side of the river with no one else in sight. Frank and I circled his kayak like a couple of exhausted police officers.
"What are you doing?" Frank shouted, though his language at the time was a little more colorful.
"Shhh," Eli hissed. "Don't you hear that?"
The look on his face sent a shiver down my spine. For some reason, the way he was staring into the water made me second guess the sturdiness of my craft. I had to suppress the urge to paddle to shore and reach dry land. Was there a shark or something down there? Piranha? Of course not—though I couldn't help but flip through the catalogue of aquatic monsters in my mind. And I wasn't made any more comfortable by the fact that Eli couldn't be broken from his hypnotism.
"Just listen," he demanded. "I can hear it."
"Hear what?" Frank splashed our brother with his paddle. Eli didn't seem to notice.
In the years that followed, I'd never be able to fully articulate what happened next. I often return to that spot on the river--of course this time I do it from the safety of land--and try to piece together the events.
The water began to bubble around my craft. They were small creeping beads, like the kind that preceded the boil of a kettle. Then Frank let out a sound like he'd been slapped, and when I looked up the entirety of the shoreline was overgrowing with wildlife. Animals were arriving by the second: deer and seagulls. Beavers, a few raccoons, a slew of owls.
People ask me what I did when I saw such a bizarre image. I often reply, what would you do if you saw something like that?
For a moment, it all seemed so God damned hysterical, like we were in some kind of reverse zoo, all the animals showing up to look at us through the glass. Even Eli was smiling a little. I'll never forget that look on his face, that wonderful sort of half-smile he'd offer.
And then we heard it.
That otherworldly wail.
It came from beneath us--from the bottom of the river. Followed by a bright orange glow that illuminated the water like it was a soda. In the movies, this is the sort of thing that drives animal life away, right? Just before the volcano blows, everything sprints for safety.
But they just kept showing up. Inching closer to the water, some of the deer were up to their torso, like they wanted to see what happened next. Their eyes were so black and haunting that it withers my bowels just thinking of them.
Frank went down first.
I didn't see it. I just heard the squelching burp of water and turned in time to see the tip of his kayak vanish like the Titanic.
Eli stared at me with tears in his eyes. It's like he knew he was next.
"Tell mom we'll be late for dinner." he said, that dumb half-smile on his face.
Was it some kind of joke? A playful goodbye of sorts? I had no clue. But I paddled. Harder than I'd ever paddled in my life. But just before I'd reached his kayak, it got jerked down into the river like a pool toy. Eli's palms flew upward and the last thing I saw were his outstretched fingers slipping into the bright orange abyss.
I didn't stop paddling. I sliced right through the water where his kayak had been, tears bursting from my eyes, and made it to shore just as I started to feel the tremor of something tickling my craft. The wildlife finally broke away as I scrambled up to the nearest road.
Over my shoulder, the water was beginning to calm. The orange glow dissipated. The wail trailed off into a whisper before finally disappearing altogether.
The entire thing happened in less than a minute.
For two days, I was suspected of murdering my brothers. But in somewhat of a catch-22 twist, their bodies were discovered after an expansive manhunt. It was unfortunate because my poor mother had to face the truth that she'd lost two thirds of her children in one afternoon.
But it was fortunate for me that, because of my fake leg (amputated when I was nine after a car accident), I was exonerated. There's no way I could have hiked both of their bodies into the wilderness where they'd been discovered
Frank was found, waterlogged and naked, two miles east in the hills of Forrest Park. The lead investigators could hardly reach him, and they had all their original limbs.
Eli was found a few hours later half a mile north in Linnton Park. He too was missing his clothes.
How either of them ended up so far from the river, I can't say. Moreover, I don't really want to think about it any longer than I have to. Over the years, I've been approached by a number of people with their own theories: everything from "government men in black" to climate change activists to "He has risen" zealots.
But if you ask me, I'm not so convinced. In fact, I put my money on the other guy. Because if what I saw that day wasn't the actual maw of hell opening up to swallow my family, then I don't know what it could have been.
Recently, an audio sample was submitted to the Portland Drab for investigation. In it, a team of ornithologists were recording bird samples along a stretch of farmland off the Willamette near Champoeg State Park. That's over thirty miles south of where I first heard the wail back in '62. Unfortunately, the scientists who captured the audio have gone missing. Their colleagues discovered their recording equipment a week after they disappeared.
The Portland Drab asked me into their offices to listen to the clip and confirm whether or not it was the same sound I'd heard all those years ago.
Nervously, I accepted.
Sipping coffee, I took a deep breath and listened to the following clip. When it had finished playing, the Drab staff looked at me eagerly. I could sense excitement and fear in their eyes. Was this it? Had someone finally captured evidence of the mysterious sound that killed my brothers?
"Publish it," I finally told them, my voice shaking. "Because the people of Portland need to know: if they hear this sound, then they need to run."
They need to run like the devil himself is reaching out for them.