Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 847
The first-person narrator and his companion, a Swedish man, are on a canoe trip, intending to travel the entire length of the Danube River to the Black Sea. The river is in flood and has swiftly carried them into Hungary and a completely wild and uninhabited area. As far as the eye can see, there is nothing on either bank but limitless clusters of large willow bushes.
They decide to stop overnight on one of the many small islands dotting the river, and on setting up camp are almost immediately confronted by two odd sights that serve to set the tone for their stay. A strange creature, almost like an otter, is seen floating down the river turning over and over, while shortly afterward they see a “flying apparition” traveling rapidly down the river, resembling a man in a boat who seems to be making the sign of the cross and shouting wildly at them. These odd events serve as a stimulus to the narrator’s imagination, and he realizes that the beauty of the wild landscape also contains weirdness, even terror, such as the howling wind, raging water, and especially the constantly moving willow branches.
Later that night, the narrator undergoes stranger encounters. Peering out of his tent, he sees in the moonlight a column of odd shapes or beings rising out of a clump of willows and disappearing into the sky, the figures appearing to melt in and out of one another. The sight is so strange and majestic that the narrator almost gets down on his knees to worship. Later that night in his tent, he hears a pattering sound, as of innumerable tiny steps, coming from outside his tent, and also feels as if a great weight is pressing down on him. He goes out and looks around and realizes that the willows seem to have moved closer to the tent during the night.
The next morning, the narrator hopes to have his staid and unimaginative traveling companion convince him that he has been dreaming, but instead he hears the astonishing revelation that a canoe paddle is missing and there is a tear in the bottom of the canoe. Adding to this ominous note, the companion divulges his feeling that mysterious forces in the area sense their presence and will try to make them victims. Increasing their tension is the discovery of small conical holes in the sand all over the island.
The damage to the canoe means that they will have to spend another day and night on the island for repairs, which is disquieting news. That night at supper, they find that the bread is missing from their provision sack. It is just at this time that a sound like a ringing gong is heard coming from the sky, although it also seems to come from the willow bushes and even from inside their bodies. They are now fully convinced that these sounds and the other manifestations can only be nonhuman in origin and are almost certainly threatening.
The narrator’s companion, believing that they have trespassed on the grounds of another world, explains that they must keep quiet and especially not think about the alien forces; otherwise the two will be found and sacrificed. As if in corroboration, when one of them shouts, a strange cry is heard in the sky directly overhead and the gonging comes nearer.
Late that night, they go out hunting for firewood and see a sight so frightening that it makes one of them faint. Looking back at the camp that they have just left, they see a large, dark, rolling shape almost like the willow bushes in appearance, apparently looking for them and starting to come in their direction. They are saved only because one of them has fainted while the other is distracted by a sudden pain, thus preventing their minds from dwelling on the approaching entity, causing it to lose their location. When they get back to their camp, they see that the sand around it is completely riddled with the same conical holes.
The final confrontation comes later that night, when the narrator awakens and discovers that his companion is missing, while the gonging and pattering noises are louder than they have ever been. He finds his friend in a trance, about to jump into the river, and drags him back into the tent. At this point, all sounds cease and his friend suddenly grows calm, says that “they” have found a victim, and falls asleep peacefully.
The next morning, much relaxed, the companion repeats that a victim evidently was found and they will see evidence of this if they search. They indeed discover the corpse of a man in the water, caught in the willows. When they touch the body, the same gonging sound rises up into the air from it and fades away. To their horror, they see the same conical holes in the body that are in the sand and realize that these are the marks of the beings or entities into whose territory they have accidentally ventured.