THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PROFESSOR SMALLWOOD

I have to admit that this is weird. Frankly, it does not feel right. I do not want to seem ungrateful, for, as a graduate student, finding any kind of paid work is like getting a golden ticket. Believe me; I am happy to help in any way. Still, I did not know Professor Smallwood at all, and doing something so personal seems like a better fit for a family member. Then again, after spending nearly a month with Professor Smallwood’s journal, his papers, and the remains of what was once his life, I have come to the obvious conclusion that he did not leave behind a family. Never once have I seen the words “mother,” “father,” “son” or “daughter” in his things. The man died alone and unloved. He also died insane. The official verdict may have been suicide, but I do not believe that Professor Smallwood intended to kill himself at all. Indeed, Professor Smallwood went to his grave searching after the crowning achievement of his life. 

What follows is my report on the final days of Professor Jonathan Smallwood. Everything herein has come directly from the source materials given to me by Frostburg State University, the Allegany County Sheriff’s Department, and Judge Robert Hocking. These individuals were always gracious with their time. They always answered my questions and accepted my requests, no matter how strange. I could not have done this without them. 

I also could not have finished this project without your help, Professor Walton.  I know you have sworn up and down that my midnight call did not bother you, but I still feel awful about it. I must have sounded absolutely insane, and for that I am sorry. This whole thing has been more difficult than I initially expected, and because of that I have requested some time off from school in order to look after my mental health. I hope that I will return to my classes and studies well-rested and in a better head space. I promise to send you an email as soon as I land safely back home. 

Sincerely,

Grace 

***

Professor Smallwood’s biography is short and can be summarized in a single sentence: he was born and raised in Maryland, went to local public schools, and graduated with his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. Smallwood only left Maryland twice, and this fact, along with his overbearing loneliness, wore around his shoulders like a weighted albatross. It apparently got so bad that in the early spring of 2020, when the rest of the world was learning how to live just like him, Professor Smallwood made plans to rent a cabin along the Casselman River with the intention of drowning himself. The foreshadowing is painfully obvious. 

Going back to those two trips, the more important one occurred when Professor Smallwood was invited to attend a conference in Hawaii. The conference was neither in his field, nor did the organizers accept or reject one of his proposals. Professor Smallwood was simply tapped by the dearly departed Dean Halsey as a representative for Frostburg State. Dean Halsey had an idea that his small school could get greater recognition among scholars by “showing up” more often at places where the smart set congregated. And because Professor Smallwood had a perennially empty calendar, he was given an itinerary and a plane ticket. Dean Halsey also sent him a minder in the form of a bewildered grad student (I know the feeling). 

Professor Smallwood did not record his experiences in Hawaii in his journal, for the diary did not come to life until after his return to Maryland. However, thanks to that long-suffering grad student, I got to read a somewhat long email chain between himself and Professor Smallwood. The first six or so emails were ho-hum: one was about the plane ride, one was about landing and finding the hotel, and then four were nothing more than daily check-ins. The shuttered academic’s fear of flying was the only memorable moment of these exchanges. 

Then, on the next to last day, at 9:33 p.m. local time, Professor Smallwood sent a long email brimming with enthusiasm. The English Literature specialist with a lone published work on the poetry of John Betjeman found himself in a tizzy about a peculiar legend:

I learned today about a most exciting figure: Kamohoaliʻi. The native Hawaiians venerated him as a god. He was apparently the brother of some major god, but this elementary definition belies his greater importance. Kamohoaliʻi fathered the Hawaiian people, and maybe the Polynesians of this region more broadly. The stories claim that Kamohoaliʻi, a shark-headed god, ferried the Hawaiians from their ancestral home in the South Seas to the islands, most prominently the island of Maui. Despite his fearsome appearance, the shark god was benevolent. Shipwrecked or lost sailors would be given a narcotic drink and brought to shore by the flapping of the god’s massive tail. Sounds wonderful, right? 

I learned all of this thanks to a wholly unexpected, but pleasant day. I take my breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the hotel, and usually nothing special happens. However, this afternoon, my eating was briefly interrupted by a gentleman handing out brochures. I fully expected something religious or political but was surprised to see that the brochure spoke of adventures way up in the hills beyond Honolulu. The gentleman introduced himself as a local tour guide, and he promised me a great day of exploration. At the low cost of $50, I accepted his offer. That initial donation of $50 soon ballooned as the man not only had me buy him “provisions” for the trip, but I was also forced to contribute towards his fuel costs, of which there was a decent portion due to my guide “double-dipping” as an Uber Eats delivery driver. 

We finally made it up to the mountains around three o’clock. The scenery was amazing—far beyond anything in Maryland or the East Coast. Nothing but dark, lush greenery everywhere I turned. And what an absolutely azure horizon too! The words of mere men cannot accurately describe such vistas. As for my guide, he played along by telling me tall tales about the island and its history. Some were pedestrian and bordered on the criminal (I suspect that the man is not averse to breaking the law to make his coins), while others sparked my imagination. None captivated me quite like the story of Kamohoaliʻi. I cannot articulate why, but the figure of the shark-headed deity immediately arose in my mind and has not yet left. I do believe that I shall transport him with me across the Pacific and back to the Old Bay. 

Please remind me to read up on Hawaiian myths and legends. I’m sure the university library will at least have one good volume. 

Have a good night. 

One month later, Professor Smallwood began keeping a journal. The volume is a small booklet made mostly of cheap paper. It was clearly purchased for less than five dollars at either a grocery store or gas station. And yet, despite its lowly origins, Professor Smallwood devoted much time and care to it. He was consistent in his entries, with daily annotations. Unlike most who maintain such a journal, Professor Smallwood did not write about personal matters. There is not a single page devoted to wine, women, or song in it. Every page circles back to a singular and consistent theme—Professor Smallwood’s growing obsession with folklore. His admittedly pedestrian experience in Hawaii somehow stirred something dormant in his soul and mind. He consumed all of Frostburg’s very limited Hawaii materials with speed. He then moved onto the legends of the Celtic peoples, the Germanics, the ancient Egyptians, and later the diverse stories of the Native American tribes of Maryland. His particular focus was on the many appearances of animal-headed gods across the world. On a May 28th entry, he wrote: 

The ancient peoples of Ireland and Scotland called him Cernunnos. He was the horned god of the hunt, and he also guarded the gates between the world of the living and the land of the dead. Given that it was the Celts and their festival known as Samhain that gave us a bastardized Halloween, one would assume that images of Cernunnos can be found in common demonic images. Horns are prominent, after all. What fascinates me is the prevalence of descriptions giving Cernunnos serpents for legs. Sometimes his entire lower half is a squirming mass. This places him in a category different from Herne the Hunter, the English stag-headed god of the hunt. If one recalls how Saint Patrick ran the snakes from Ireland, and if one understands the importance of serpents in Celtic mythology, then it is easy to come to the assumption that Patrick specifically targeted Cernunnos for extinction. 

But why? Must read more. 

Side note: may or may not have found a line in a book by a gentleman named Oswald about a serpent deity among the Iroquois. This requires further investigation. 

It was only a matter of days until Professor Smallwood found what he was looking for. Last summer, while Frostburg emptied of all student life, Professor Smallwood stayed up late at the library and in private quarters reading and writing about a deity called Djodi’kwado.’ He even attempted to sketch the god and devoted an entire page to a monstrous entity with a rattlesnake’s head and gigantic body with an exposed vent. The picture’s fangs dripped with a dark ichor that may or may not have been blood. Overall, the more I looked at the drawing, the more I saw the teenage boy in Professor Smallwood. The over-the-top and near-pornographic exaggerations would not be out-of-place on an album cover for a heavy metal band or the cover of a comic book. It was pure fantasy from someone with such limited life experiences. At the same time as Professor Smallwood was growing in his academic research and interests, he was reverting in terms of his behavior. (I do not want to say too much about it, as it would be salacious, about prior to his death, Professor Smallwood took up outdoor masturbation.) 

But back to Djodi’kwado.’ Professor Smallwood wrote on June 18th,

The more I learn about the god, the more I am fascinated by him. In his serpent form he is massive and horrifying. Those who look upon him are turned incurably insane by his image. They die as raving lunatics. This is a fate reserved only for men. For women, Djodi’kwado’ has another face—a beautiful face that is intoxicating. When he wants to, the serpent god disguises himself as a handsome and strong male warrior. The purpose of this is to lure women deep into his watery lair. Djodi’kwado,’ the soul-eater, prefers rivers and lakes. It is rather interesting that the Iroquois, especially the Massawomeck, frequently hunted and occasionally settled in western Maryland, a land dotted with many rivers and lakes. Could it be that Djodi’kwado’ lived here once upon a time? 

This is the moment when Professor Smallwood inadvertently penned his own death warrant. I do not believe that he had a death wish, even despite his increasingly bizarre and anti-social behavior near the end. Rather, in becoming obsessed with the darker gods of the Massawomeck people, this lonely and isolated man opened his mind to all manner of chaotic thoughts. It is entirely possible that there was something hidden in his genetics. After all, the swiftness of Professor Smallwood’s transformation from meek and forgettable adjunct professor to insane occultist suggests a kink somewhere—a previously unobserved and undiscovered black thread of madness that was not allowed to unspool until the conditions were right. 

Professor Smallwood moved in a predictable manner first. He wrote to a local Maryland history journal and offered to submit an article about the Massawomeck people and their rituals concerning Djodi’kwado.’ The query was accepted, so Professor Smallwood got to work researching and writing what would turn out to be fifteen pages of mostly speculative conjecture. I must have read the article three times now, and each reading makes the late professor seem more unhinged. Frankly, I am surprised that the article was accepted at all. Professor Smallwood’s sources were entirely secondary. I do not mean to be petty towards another discipline, but I do feel that the article’s shortcomings can be blamed on Professor Smallwood being a literature specialist, where texts are synonymous with primary sources. The closest the article gets to real historical data is referencing the work of other scholars, primarily Oswald. In particular, Professor Smallwood made great hay about Oswald’s musings concerning a series of stone images and idols discovered by an Oakland farmer in 1915. Oswald reproduced the images as charcoal sketches in his book. Professor Smallwood accepted these reproductions as genuine, and they may very well be. Reservations exist, more or less, because of Oswald’s well-known support for eugenics, his articles praising the Third Reich, and his suspected membership in the Ku Klux Klan. 

The series of images show a large serpentine creature devouring thin, stick-like females near the shore of some kind of body of water. The most striking one shows a small crowd gathered around the creature, which is assumed to be Djod’kwado.’ Professor Smallwood certainly thought so, and thus his conclusion asserted that some kind of cult, or even a subset of a tribe within the Massawomeck people, sacrificed their females to the god. An assertion devoid of evidence, and yet it saw print. Of course, less than one hundred people read it, even after the author’s well-publicized demise. Professor Smallwood recorded his thoughts about the article. They were surprisingly negative. 

Yet another failure! I contemplate why I ever decided on becoming a professional thinker with this dehydrated and dissipated brain of mine. The worst of it all is that I know my findings to be true, but my illiteracy and inability to articulate concepts makes the truth suspicious. I am correct but cannot make it show. I have disgraced myself and the great Oswald. 

Professor Smallwood was still in a melancholic funk days later, but a new reason had been found. This time, on August 5th, he excoriated himself for failing to include in his work any mention of Rzanzaii-esse-Oneka.’ 

At long last I have uncovered a mystery as old as time. And yet I stupidly let a deadline dissuade me from completing the entirety of my labors. I let you down, Rzanzaii-esse-Oneka.’ A sin that must be repaid. Although I do not want to, for I am weary after such intense research, I am compelled to keep digging further. I cannot stop until mortals re-learn to fear Rzanzaii-esse-Oneka’! 

It is clear that Professor Smallwood had lost his mind at this point. Every subsequent journal entry became more nonsensical than the next. I had to wade through so much rubbish just in order to find out who or what Rzanzaii-esse-Oneka’ is. The name only appears once in Oswald’s book as a short endnote numbered 456. It is all too easy to miss, even for the most attentive readers. The endnote is not attributed to anybody or anything and likely came from Oswald himself. It reads in its entirety: “An Iroquois elder I spoke with once made mention of a god called Rzanzaii-esse-Oneka.’ Said deity predates Djodi’kwado,’ and is believed to be the father of all aquatic gods. Rzanzaii-esse-Oneka’ was described to me as a sort of shark-turtle hybrid whose awful visage is enough to drive humans to suicide. This is a figure worth greater attention.” It is unknown if Oswald returned to Rzanzaii-esse-Oneka’ or not. His most apt pupil certainly picked up the fragment and tried to create a tapestry with it. Professor Smallwood tracked what little traces of the deity that he could find, but they did not amount to much. His lone victory was uncovering the identity of the Iroquois elder who had spoken to Oswald. The man’s name was Paul John Smith, and he died at the ripe age of 88 in 1955. Professor Smallwood poured through all the Smiths of western Maryland on the off chance that one of the elder’s descendants still lived in the area. His searching came to nothing. 

It was at this time that Professor Smallwood began having lucid dreams, both at night and during the day. They became so frequent that he eventually stopped recording them beyond a few perfunctory sentences like, “Another dream today” or “dreaming again.” The first one, however, was given the attention befitting its significance. 

While walking along the shores of Deep Creek Lake, a sharp and sudden pain assaulted my eyes and ears. My God, I thought: is this one of those panic attacks that I hear so much about? I checked my hands for signs of shaking. I placed my fingers to my pulse. Everything felt normal, and yet the pain was extraordinary. It was so intense that I fell to my knees and began moaning. I did not spare a single thought for the numerous tourists cluttered around me. I assume they felt likewise about the lunatic in their midst. 

As quickly as the pain came, it subsided. But this cessation did not mean the end of my tribulation. Pain was replaced by what is known as disassociation. I do know by what witchery it was accomplished, but I distinctly watched myself from the perspective of an unknown and unseen third party. I saw myself, stoop-shouldered and bewildered, look, wild-eyed, across the flat and tranquil surface of the lake. The people melted away. The townhouses, vacation homes, and ice cream parlors disappeared. The land returned to the primitive. All I saw was green trees, blue water, and the dark dirt that once produced the steady diet of Maryland’s original inhabitants. 

At first the summer sun was hot and high up in the sky. Yet it soon darkened, and a chilling breeze cut through my skin like a sea of tiny scalpels. The lighting became gloomy. I felt nothing but dread. This feeling was given a focus when, rising out of the water, I saw the gigantic shape of the deity once known only by a select few warrior-priests of the proud Massawomeck people. Rzanzaii-esse-Oneka’ rose up before me. I saw him in all of his horrific majesty, and I had the strength to keep looking well past the point of madness. 

The figure I saw was monstrous. Its full height reached higher than the darkened sun in the sky. A majority of its body was encased in shadow, and thus a mystery to me. However, I saw on its back a towering, circular shell complete with strange designs. Rather than the familiar spirals of river turtles, the god had sigils and signs that appeared to move as if they were living entities. The few I could discern looked like hybrid animals or chimeric creatures combining horns and tusks with the bodies of goats, snakes, salamanders, and deer. Crowned above this massive shell was a head that vaguely resembled that of a Greenland shark. Its milky eyes showed it blindness. I learned that the great Rzanzaii-esse-Oneka’ is a blind god, and yet capable of vision. Thanks to him I saw what I was meant to see all along— Rzanzaii-esse-Oneka’ and his kingdom underneath water. There, underneath the waters of Deep Creek Lake, Rzanzaii-esse-Oneka’ pulled to the surface a palace complex of interlinked buildings that were squat, triangular, and contained a single window or porthole in each. They were made of slick but rough stone—the type of stone that can be found in lakes across North America. Although I did not see people, the buildings bore the telltale hallmarks of human construction. These buildings represented the ancient worship center of the Rzanzaii-esse-Oneka’ cult, and they had been built by the long-dead adherents. The only one left is me. 

As the realization dawned on me, the image receded, and I was left shaken and bewildered in the present day. I do know how long I was under the god’s spell. It could have been minutes, or it could have been mere seconds. What I saw was enlightenment for a lifetime, however. 

That same night, sometime after managing to fall asleep, Professor Smallwood had yet another vision. What this vision entailed has been lost to time. All he recorded was a simple phrase: 

Djodi’kwado’ is an intermediary. A priest. 

It would appear that Professor Smallwood came to the conclusion that the well-documented Iroquois god Djodi’kwado’ was a god of lesser significance than the obscure Rzanzaii-esse-Oneka.’ Again, where this exact knowledge came from is unknown, but I would conjecture that Professor Smallwood had yet another lucid dream featuring the two deities. Maybe he saw the ghastly Djodi’kwado’ as a supplicant bent low before Rzanzaii-esse-Oneka.’ Maybe he had a vision of the handsome face of Djodi’kwado’ leading lovely maidens down to the watery depths of Deep Creek Lake. I find the latter mostly likely given what Professor Smallwood did next. 

Now, in order to tell the final days of Professor Smallwood’s life properly, I will put down his journal, which only repeats the word “failure” again and again until Smallwood was found with lungs full of water on August 31st and pick up the police reports. The Allegany County Sheriff’s Office first made contact with Professor Smallwood thirty minutes before midnight on July 5th. The police report, made out by a Deputy Greene, is less than one page long. It all started because of a complaint made by a woman named Belinda (note: the copy I got was redacted to protect Belinda). According to her, Professor Smallwood aggressively propositioned her at a bar called Bugsy’s. Belinda believed that his intentions were sexual, and Deputy Greene made sure to note that the word “rape” was used. However, in Belinda’s account, Professor Smallwood never used salacious talk or made direct mention of sex or sexual intercourse. All he did was ask her if she wanted to swim in Deep Creek Lake over and over again. The police were not called until another bar patron saw Professor Smallwood grab Belinda by her elbow and attempt to drag her away. Other patrons intervened and helped Belinda to leave Bugsy’s in peace. 

Amazingly, Professor Smallwood was not arrested or charged with any crime. In this instance, Belinda explicitly stated that she did not want the sheriff’s office to arrest him. She told Deputy Greene that Professor Smallwood was “just crazy”, and he needed to be “kept at home.” Belinda presupposed that the professor had someone who would look after him. This mistake did no favors for Jane Doe, an unidentified coed at Frostburg State who notified campus police on three different occasions about a man matching Professor Smallwood’s description who kept staring at her through her dorm window at night. An investigation was started, but nothing could be proven. The strange man never made contact with Jane Doe in any way, which made her desire for a restraining order all but impossible. (Another side note: the Frostburg State University Police have a natural comedian in Officer Brian Foreman, who hilariously noted in one report that a restraining order barring Professor Smallwood from the campus would be unanimously celebrated by the professor’s students.) 

Belinda and Jane Doe were joined by other women in Oakland and Frostburg who melted police phone lines about a creepy predator with a fixation on Deep Creek Lake. It is disheartening to know that none of these complaints amounted to anything. I would be surprised if I weren’t a woman living in this strange, quasi-puritanical part of an otherwise sane state, but the truth remains the same—Professor Smallwood had become a sex pest. And his anti-social endeavors did not end until he was finally arrested on August 16th. His crime was solicitation of a sex worker. Frankly, I am surprised that it took the terminally awkward Professor Smallwood this long to seek out paid company. When he did, he bumbled his way into frightening the woman so terribly that it was she who alerted the police. The reliable Deputy Greene was on the scene again. His new report included a fairly long excerpt from the woman’s point-of-view.

…says that the man (Smallwood) proceeded to reach for her shirt’s hemline. Rather than pull it down, the individual pulled the hemline up almost as if to choke the woman. It was at this point that Smallwood made mention of “the water” and a “temple complex.” [Name redacted] felt in danger for her life, so she used her set of car keys to scratch Smallwood across the face. [Name redacted] also used one of her keys to puncture a small hole in Smallwood’s ear, thus temporarily incapacitating him. 

Professor Smallwood was arrested, charged, and placed in the county jail. He was facing serious time for aggravated assault, but he received a kind of salvation in the form of Dean Halsey. The dean quietly convinced Sheriff Walter Branagh, a Frostburg alumnus, to have Professor Smallwood examined by Professor Adrianne Gailey, the chair of the Psychology Department. Sheriff Branagh agreed. The interview took place sometime on August 17th, and by August 20th, Professor Smallwood had been moved to Cumberland. There, as patient number #134658, he was housed at the Thomas B. Finan Center and underwent regular mental health screenings conducted by Dr. Sunil Gupta. Dr. Gupta, fresh out of Johns Hopkins, where he excelled in all of his coursework, did not believe that Professor Smallwood was deranged, but rather “overstressed.” He certainly did not think that he was dangerous, as the two academics took to enjoying unsecure strolls around the hospital grounds during the late afternoon. Much like Dean Halsey, Dr. Gupta enjoyed the bias of the educational class, and likely considered Professor Smallwood a wayward colleague as opposed to a very sick man. This would explain the cavalier leniency that led to Professor Smallwood’s escape on August 30th

At approximately 6:45 p.m., two officers with the Cumberland Police Department were dispatched to the Thomas B. Finan Center. Dispatch informed them that a patient had gotten loose after assaulting the staff. Well, the staff turned out to be Dr. Gupta, who reported that Professor Smallwood had, without provocation, punched and bit him in the face and hands in order to flee the hospital grounds. Dr. Gupta told them that Smallwood was on foot and did not have access to a car. And yet, as everyone reading this knows, Professor Smallwood somehow managed to get back to Deep Creek Lake either that same night or the following morning. There, under a practically moonless night sky, he entered the lake and began swimming. He kept swimming until he drowned. The water entered his mouth until it flooded his diaphragm. He died gasping for air while searching for something that does not exist. Maryland state archaeologists could drain the water from Deep Creek Lake and never find the temple of the shark god Rzanzaii-esse-Oneka’ in a million lifetimes. The state government is certainly not going to do anything for the benefit of Professor Smallwood or his legacy. 

That is the end of the story. I know you all want more, but like I told Sheriff Branagh, I cannot find any evidence to answer the case’s two lingering questions. One: there are no receipts, either physical or digital, indicating that Professor Smallwood purchased a ride from Cumberland to Deep Creek Lake on the night of August 30-31st. I cannot explain how this clearly irrational and insane man managed to traverse half of the county with such ease after nearly beating Dr. Gupta unconscious. I’m sorry, but this is a mystery that will persist. 

As for the bigger and more horrific mystery, I have yet to find nor will I continue to look for an explanation concerning the discovery that was made by Deputy Greene inside of Professor Smallwood’s apartment. Never once does his journal mention anything about purchasing or, God-forbid, personally removing a head and somehow fashioning it into that hideous shark ornament. I have looked and re-looked through every document. There is nothing. My hope is that the state’s detectives can use DNA to its fullest capabilities and uncover the head’s true identity. I believe that Professor Smallwood was a very troubled man, and I do believe that his obsession with Rzanzaii-esse-Oneka’ edged him towards violence on multiple occasions, and yet I still have a hard time believing that he would stoop so far as to murder and mutilate. Ultimately, it is not up to me to prove or disprove this. My part in this strange story is over. 

Thank goodness. 

— Arbogast is a poet with a blog. You can purchase his new poetry collection, “Nocturnes”, here