It was about the size of a bus, gold and scaly with red wings. It was vaguely lion-shaped, with terror bird talons for feet, thorny antlers atop its head, and a face with Maybelline red lips slashed by two stalagmite fangs in its bottom jaw, from which descended a long beard. Around it wrapped a long, ropey tail, segmented like a scorpion’s, except that instead of a stinger, the tail ended in paired fins like a fish’s tail. The beast looked like some sort of dragon. And it kind of was: A Native American dragon called the Piasa Bird. Fortunately, it wasn’t slavering hungrily above me. It was painted on the rough rock wall.
In your head, you’re telling me not to, but let’s start with the mural anyway.
In 1673, a priest named Jacques Marquette recorded a painting of two monsters on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. He described the scaly creatures as the size of calves, with deer horns, red eyes, a tiger’s beard, a man’s face, and a long tail that wrapped around it and ended in fish fins. The painting was in green, red, and black. In other words, close to what I was looking at there in Alton, but not quite a match. The colors were off, as was the size and the lack of a second beast. Most notable, Father Marquette didn’t mention any wings.
But that’s how you make a monster. Reach into antiquity to establish credibility, embellish it with all the powers of fiction, make it famous and celebrate it. Even if in the end, its pieces are all made by humans—the mural, the story, the cave—it’s still a great opportunity to tell the kids in the backseat that next on the itinerary, they’re going to see a monster.